Melvins – Tarantula Heart


How many bands can say that they pioneered two genres of music? The Melvins fanbase and critics lay claim to them being the forefathers of grunge and sludge metal. You’ll find a lot of the latter and not as much of the former despite their major label years in the 1990s and a couple of appearances in the Billboard charts. But a list of their supporters among fellow musicians reads like a who’s who of royalty – Soundgarden, Neurosis, Mastodon, Helmet, Mr Bungle, Tool, and Baroness all cite them as an inspiration. A young chap from Seattle call Kurt was also grateful to Melvins’ frontman, Buzz Osborne, for taking him to his first Black Flag concert. They might not have the album sales to match their influence, but there’s no doubt of their legendary status. Can you believe their latest record is album number twenty-seven?

It would be easy to dismiss Melvins as a legacy artist for elitist tastemakers, but Tarantula Heart is proud to challenge perceptions. This is not the sound of a band writing music for a declining audience. Admittedly, starting their latest LP with a nineteen-minute song is not something that will endear them to casual listeners. Yet ‘Pain Equals Funny’ is seldom dull or laborious. A cloud of feedback hovers over its intro like a drifter with sinister intentions as a rolling bass line and simple tom drum movements lead the way to a Soundgarden riff. Listen how the bass finds the melody at the higher end of the fretboard and lets the guitar saunter. Buzz Osborne’s voice is confident and melodious enough to match. As is now synonymous with the group, Melvins draw from 70s rock and the noisy hardcore experimentation of Black Flag. Listen to the clarity of the stereo drums – you’d think they had Michael Beinhorn in the control room. The mood turns darker at 05:30 with a switch to meaner guitar chords and a second channel of amp noise. Now you can see why people cite Melvins as the first sludge metal band. This section – which we’ll call Act II – continues until 09:20 with simple vocal lines before the guitars calm down and the bass takes over by using the same riff. Why does this song retain your attention? It’s the hypnotic and suspenseful motif continued by the bassist and the way the drums reestablish their presence in the mix with a build towards a climax. You’ll have no trouble enjoying it in a live environment.

Given their past flirtations with drone music, electronic ambience, and country punk, the question here is whether Tarantula Heart is a punk-rock LP enamoured with prog rock. The fuzzy guitars in ‘Working the Ditch’ are mean-spirited rather than extravagant. Buzz sounds irked on this song, like a gruff blues singer. Listen how the guitar chords linger like vengeful former employees with a righteous cause. Musically, you could compare the riff to early Helmet. By contrast, Buzz sings ‘She’s Got Weird Arms’ as if auditioning for an English new romantic band of the early 1980s – you wouldn’t place his origins in America. This could be Pete Burns (Dead or Alive) or a young Tony Hadley (Spandau Ballet) at the microphone. Musically, it’s like the Swans material of the early 90s with The Jesus Lizard playing the guitar parts.

The art that Melvins produce now is just as uncompromising yet as catchy as the material they released in their major label years, when the latter dished out seven-figure advances for experimental artists to do what they want (thanks to the success of Nirvana). The Brooklyn Vegan crowd can enjoy ‘Allergic to Food’ as much as the Loudwire readership. Think of this as a quirky punk rock sabotage masquerading as stoner metal. It could be L7 on acid. The shouted-word lyrics are like tuneful gang vocals. There’s no messing around in closing track, ‘Smiler’, which treats us to four minutes and fifty seconds of grinding palm-muted riffs and punk spirit.

They never seem to stop touring or producing music, and why would they? Melvins know that their art is as vital as ever in experimental rock and metal. Maybe their fanbase might expand as large as their admirers in the press and the musicians in rehearsal rooms who draw inspiration from their music. But that’s unlikely after forty years.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 19/04/2024

Record Label: Ipecac Recordings

Standout tracks: Pain Equals Funny; She’s Got Weird Arms

Suggested Further Listening: Melvins – Gluey Porch Treatments (1987), Melvins – Houdini (1993), Melvins – Working with God (2021)