Melvins are not a band so much as a machine. For almost a quarter of a century they have rumbled and rolled over the earth, leaving a trail for anyone bothering to look, and inventing an entirely new language for anyone able to hear. Hear this: Melvins are at it again, not wasting too much time following up on their last release, 2006’s A Senile Animal. That album was remarkable, and ended up surprising even longtime fans with its variety, and the sheer quality of practically every song. It also managed the semi-impossible, incorporating as it did, more polished edges into the Melvins’ patented sound: a shadowy diffusion that manages to sound glacial and molten, sometimes at the same time.
A considerable amount of credit was correctly given to the group’s newest members, bassist/vocalist Jared Warren and drummer Coady Willis — on loan from their other jobs as the demonic duo in the band Big Business. The two drummer/two singer strategy was risky and potentially misguided, but in hindsight, it seems like a no-brainer. The band sounded more invigorated, with the new blood clearly pushing the others — guitarist/singer/mastermind King Buzzo, and drummer extraordinaire Dale Crover — to reinvent ways of distributing similar sludge. It was, in short, a newer take on a tried and true formula, and it yielded spectacular results. The line-up is unchanged this time out, and expectations were high for a return to form, or — if such a thing is reasonably imaginable — an improvement. The bad news: Nude With Boots is not better than A Senile Animal. The good news: it is undeniably a success, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.
Early on in the opening song (“The Kicking Machine”), it’s clear enough that the M.O. from A Senile Animal is in effect: the twin drum assault and the synchronous vocals, and a discernibly enervated pace to the proceedings. More of same on track two (“Billy Fish”) — rolling drums introducing the action, then the always reliable Buzz Osborne unslinging (yawn) yet another nasty, tasty riff. But, like the previous album, it’s on the third track that the band truly locks in. That initial minute is pure Melvins bliss, that familiar, stuttering death crawl, unsettling yet irresistible. Not for the first time, and likely not the last, one cannot help marveling at Buzzo’s brilliance. How does he do it?
How does Buzzo do it? Perhaps it’s because he’s not human. That has to be it. Indeed, it is this fact that it’s a tad disconcerting, at times, to hear him sound like one. Or, to be more precise, hearing a regular human being singing alongside him. Probably because Jared Warren is mixed too high on the harmonies (it sounds, on most songs, like he and Buzzo are at equal volume, which means Warren is, in fact, mixed too high), the songs lose some of their otherwise insistent power when Buzzo’s voice is not front and center. A much better balance was subtly achieved on A Senile Animal, where Warren’s (and on some songs, the others’) voices embellished and accompanied. On Nude With Boots they come dangerously close to interfering. Ultimately, this might well be a matter of taste, and to some ears the novel, “fresher” sound might rate as a positive development.
Along with the occasionally claustrophobic harmonies, there is a little more light and air in several of the songs (the title track, for instance), which causes them to come near to being not only accessible, but even (gasp) catchy. Not to worry, no one is going to confuse the current incarnation of Melvins with, say, Vampire Weekend. Nevertheless, the band has evolved. The more fundamentalist-minded Melvins’ fans might protest — not without justification — that this is the one band that should remain in the muck, neither swimming nor walking, but sort of slithering in the boiling primordial ooze, making their prehistoric noises … like the sounds made on the album’s best track, “Dies Iraea”. Every Melvins album has at least one song that separates itself from the others, and this is it. This is the music playing at that last dinosaur house party before they all toppled drunkenly into the tar pit.
In sum, Melvins fans, do what you need to do. Newcomers might want to check out A Senile Animal, but then again, perhaps this one will make the last one easier to understand, and then it may be more enjoyable working backward. The question persists: how do they do it? Melvins remain a contrary respite from the gumball machine sensibilities of so much modern music: put in a penny, suck on some sugar for a few seconds until it all turns sour. Melvins are already sour, but instead of turning sweet, they do something even more surprising. They remain unsullied. And so, if you hear one of your semi-jaded friends whining about how no good music gets made anymore, you can hold Nude With Boots up as merely the latest example of how good it can still be, even today. And how fortunate we are that this band continues to thrive, sucking on the carcass of banality and spitting out gold.