With my neck craned, I gazed through a slit in the maroon curtains at the sparkling disco ball gently spinning on a rope 20 feet above the tiny stage.
As Miles Davis’s On the Corner grooved its nasty way out of the PA, the spinning sphere had a calming effect on me. It was a sensation that was sorely needed following the storming set by Japan’s noise-grind oddities Melt Banana.
So, the disco ball. Quite incongruous with a six-week tour christened the Savage Imperial Death March, no? Was it a prop that the club owners found in a studio dumpster somewhere and tied to the rafters as some sort of throwback joke. (The support beams disguised as fake plastic trees seemed to be fulfilling the kitsch quotient just fine.) What I wanted to believe was that it belonged to The Melvins, a band that’s been churning out some of the grumpiest, heaviest, and most confrontational music of the last 33 years.
As a band that’s full of contradictions, The Melvins do whatever the hell they want. Whether that includes playing their weirdo rock under a disco ball is not important, though they’ve been known to display some modest props in the past. What is important, however, is their “screw it, let’s do it” attitude, which is really where it all starts and ends for King Buzzo (guitar/vocals), Dale Crover (drums/vocals), and whoever happens to be on bass at any given minute. Cases in point:
- They released a trilogy of albums in the span of 10 months.
- They put out a live album that was just an hour of noise.
- They played their 2002 album Hostile Ambient Takeover live in its entirety before it was cool to play albums live in their entirety.
- They poached another band for their new rhythm section and recorded and toured with two drummers.
- They attempted to make the Guinness Book of World Records for playing 51 cities in 51 days (another world record mention lurks below).
And all that happened in just the second half of their career.
Prior to that, they put out classics such as Gluey Porch Treatments, Ozma, Bullhead, Eggnog, and the mighty 6-songs-in-1 Lysol, all of which influenced bands such as Eyehategod, SunnO))), Earth, Pig Destroyer, and countless others. Later, thanks to the music industry’s blind insatiable thirst for all things Seattle/Pacific Northwest in the 1990s (The Melvins are more or less originally from Aberdeen, Washington) – not to mention the band’s friendship with some guy named Kurt – the band got its strange big break by inking a deal with Atlantic Records. Though the major label stint was short-lived, the power trio managed to squeeze out some of their most-beloved material during this period, specifically Houdini (1993) and Stoner Witch (1994).
As revered for their attitude as they are for their potent blend of rock, punk, drone, sludge, and noise, The Melvins cover so much territory, never make the same record twice, and release so much material that you’d have to hate music to come up empty-handed when leafing through their massive, pastel-colored catalog.
“Insect for the crawling mother.”
As soon as the lights dimmed and The Melvins appeared, I was already taking a spiked wristband to the back and wondering why the dreadlocks that kept whipping the back of my neck were wet. Hey, shit happens when the crowd starts moving to “Eye Flys,” an excruciating dirge from 1987’s raw-like-sushi Gluey Porch Treatments.
And then you know what they did? They launched into a speedy version of “Deuce” by Kiss.
While they were nice enough to dig out “Queen” and “Revolve” from Stoner Witch, the real treat was the one-two punch of “With Yo’ Heart, Not Yo’ Hands” and “Leeech.” Though covers, the pair of songs was prime early-90s Melvins, packed with all the bile and razor-edged sludge we worship them for.
Occupying stage left was Steven McDonald of Red Kross on bass. In The Melvins, the low-end position is a veritable revolving door. The spot has been occupied by the likes of Matt Lukin (Mudhoney), Lori Black, Joe Preston (Thrones), Mark D., Kevin Rutmanis (Cows), and Jarred Warren (Big Business). But let’s hope that McDonald hangs out over there for a few more years, because he has the presence in the role not seen since the days of Rutmanis, though his antics are decidedly more metal than hip swively. And besides, he makes good music with Dale and Buzz, as heard via “The Decay of Lying” from this year’s collaborative War Pussy EP.
Things got playful but no less sinister with “The Kicking Machine” (who doesn’t love shouting “little horned animal” at the top of their lungs?) and “National Hamster,” from the great and once-free 2012 EP The Bulls and the Bees. The band also pulled out a “A Growing Disgust” from the delightfully titled Freak Puke, also released in 2012 and featuring Trevor Dunn not on electric bass, but upright bass.
It would be too easy to dismiss The Melvins’ lyrics as straight-up gibberish. And with lines such as “Like stee, moanin’ ludlow,” “Los tick-a toe rest,” and “My monkey boiling me at night,” who could discount that line of thinking? I don’t profess to know what the hell Buzz is talking about, but I do love that he’s invented some mysterious language that may or may not contain a lick of meaning. His earnest delivery, though, makes us believe that that shit is real words backed by legit, uh, what do you call those things? Oh, right – emotions.
The brilliant “The Bloated Pope,” with its uncomfortable stop-start rhythm, eerie mid-section, the line “Insect for the crawling mother,” and one of the greatest cymbal crashes in all of recorded music, is one of my favorites, and I showed my appreciation by clapping along to the muscular intro like a idiot.
As the set closed with a drawn-out version of Alice Cooper’s “Halo of Flies,” a woman near me pleaded to hear “With Teeth.” Her calls went unanswered, and at least two of us were sad. But my ennui was only momentary: my seventh Melvins show was another euphoric body slam, and as the band saluted the audience and the curtains jerked closed, I hoped it wouldn’t be another four years before I let them lift me again.
Muddling boundaries and doing things their way. No doubt, Miles would have dug The Melvins.
“We are Napalm Death from Birmingham, England…at your fucking service.”
The first song Napalm Death ever wrote was called “Punk Is a Rotting Corpse.”
That was in 1981. And maybe they had a point.
The bitchy, image-obsessed Sex Pistols had imploded a few years earlier, and even had a literal rotting corpse to count amongst its ranks in Sid Vicious. The Clash and The Replacements hung out on the more accessible side of the punk spectrum, not that experimentation was out of their repertoire. But something rotten was in the air. Black Flag, Siege, DOA, and Discharge were creating music that was getting faster, ruder, and more aggressive, while countless punk-based subgenres were springing up and taking more left turns than a doorknob.
Or, maybe the band was simply emulating Crass, who had a song called “Punk Is Dead.” After all, the founding members of Napalm Death – Nic Bullen and Miles Ratledge – were just a couple of impressionable 13- and 14-year-olds trying to make a statement with their new peace-punk band. (There, that should get you on the path toward hating the general stupidity of categorizing music.)
Over the next five years, Napalm Death would lose and gain members, and lose and gain new directions in sound, eventually evolving into a grind outfit. In 1987, the band recorded its massively influential debut album Scum, which found a champion in late BBC Radio host John Peel, an open-minded DJ if there ever was one. And even that line-up would be short-lived. And the next, too, as members left to focus on what would become some of the most cherished underground acts in the world: Godflesh (Justin Broadrick), Carcass (Bill Steer), Cathedral (Lee Dorian), and Scorn (Mick Harris).
But enough with the half-baked history lesson. In 2016, Napalm Death – the world’s premiere death-grind outfit – still packs an ungodly wallop, both on record and on stage. With the (mostly) same line-up intact since 1992’s death metal swamp excursion Utopia Banished, which had more in common with Bolt Thrower than Bl’ast, Napalm Death have never ceased to sound like hungry new upstarts with each successive release.
Well, at least until the mid-1990s. But the lull didn’t last long.
After releasing a string of records that were more slick than sick, starting with 1996’s Diatribes, the band caught everyone off guard when they dropped Enemy of the Music Business in 2000. The pummeling set breathed new life into a band that has thus far produced six more albums that are, simply put, excessively brutal and extremely pissed off. Frankly, in terms of sheer force, their back catalogue is child’s play in comparison, even if that large body of work is responsible for influencing powerhouses Nasum, Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Exhumed, Misery Index, Rotten Sound, SOB, and so on.
With that pesky disco ball out of sight, Barney Greenway and Co. took to the stage and proceeded to bash their way through 25 career-spanning bruisers. Following the 1-2-3 battery of openers “Apex Predator – Easy Meat,” “Mass Appeal Madness,” and “On the Brink of Extinction,” a gentleman in the crowd screamed “Welcome back to fucking Texas!” Right on.
Ever-amusing vocalist Greenway was like an insane man on the lam who thinks he’s still locked up in his padded cell. He jogged across the stage, swirled his arms over his head, pumped his fists, slashed and kicked the air, and stumbled around like a drunk (he doesn’t drink). Shane Embury’s bass was a thick, sickening slur, particularly on “Hung,” and I tried to tap my foot and fingers along to drummer Danny Herrera’s blast beats and machine-gun fills to no avail. Meanwhile, fill-in guitarist John Cooke (Mitch Harris was still on leave) worked his way up and down the fretboard like he was the one who taught Harris everything he knows.
Featuring “Mr. John Zorn on the fucking sax,” “Everyday Pox” was two minutes of mind-warping lunacy about people who hate and do little else. Odd, then, that Greenway waited until before “How the Years Condemn” to invoke the current U.S. presidential election cycle and offer up some short-winded commentary on republican frontrunner and known pants-shitter Donald Trump: “I cannot be offended by that man. He’s just a fucking oaf.”
Bashing right along, the band ripped through “Greed Killing,” “Metaphorically Screw You,” “Smash a Single Digit” (“Everything upscale that is consumed in this world generally has a fucking human cost – too high a human cost to ever be fucking acceptable”), and some of my favorites, “Next on the List” and “Smear Campaign.” The latter, thanks to its plodding pace and Greenway’s booming vocals, is a savory apocalyptic fright-fest.
The band then technically became a cover band for a brief stretch of songs off Scum, on which none of the current members played: “Life?” “The Kill,” “Deceiver,” the title track, and of course one of the band’s most popular, um, “songs,” “You Suffer,” which, at one second long, is officially the shortest song ever ever ever. (Go ahead, look it up in ye olde Guinness Book of World Records if thee don’t believe me.) (OK, I couldn’t find it on the Guinness website, but the Internet says it’s true.)
Whereas The Melvins invent their own lyrical language, Napalm Death is preoccupied with speaking out (or growling out, as it were) against the horrible things this world has on offer. If you’re not a fan of religious interference, political corruption, the anti-LGBTQ hordes, war, animal cruelty, slavery, music industry trickery, manipulation by media, racism, and social conformity, then they’re on your side and mine. (I heard they’re a riot at parties.)
Like The Melvins, however, Napalm Death has recorded mountains of cover songs in tribute to their idols. Before launching into the mandatory airing of “Suffer the Children,” the band treated us to Cryptic Slaughter’s “Lowlife” and the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” songs that may as well have been theirs from the start.
Like fellow Brits Killing Joke, Napalm Death is exhibiting all the glorious signs of old-man strength – they just get more vicious and enraged with age.
“We try, as best as our senile old minds can manage.”
The origins of the Savage Imperial Death March tour stretch back to 1997.
The Melvins had released the gloriously inaccessible and prickly masterpiece Honky after being dropped like a sack of bricks from Atlantic. Meanwhile, Napalm Death was touring their latest record for Earache, Inside the Torn Apart, which boasts crowd favorite “Breed to Breathe.”
The band played with The Melvins for the first time in London that year as support. However, the tables turned when, later that year, The Melvins and Neurosis served as support on select dates.
“I’ve been a fan of The Melvins – me and Barney – since ’88,” Shane Embury, bassist, songwriter, and longest-serving member of Napalm Death, told me during our quick chat in the rain-slicked parking lot after the show. During these shows, though, the bands were like passing ships in the night. “We really didn’t talk that much. I think I was too nervous to talk to Buzz.”
Six years later, mutual friend Kevin Sharp of Brutal Truth put an end to all that. In 2003, Sharp and Embury started talking about forming a band out of their shared love for old-school punk and hardcore. The two enlisted Buzz and his guitar, as well as Herrera, and Venomous Concept was born.
“We went down to L.A., and I got to meet Buzz and we just became friends, really,” recounted Embury. “We shared an interest in the same kind of horror movies and goofy humor. So we kept in touch from then on. Every time we’d tour in L.A. or I’d spend time there – I play in a band called Brujeria occasionally – he’d just go and pick you up and take you around L.A. He’s like a tour guide, you know? ‘That’s Jim Morrison’s house. Let’s go get a bite to eat.’ We always talked about it, doing a tour together.”
Speaking of collaborations, when I mentioned Justin Broadrick – perhaps the most prolific former member in the band’s history – I learned that the two friends have been “kind of talking about doing a little project together.” How humble. There’s no way that anything these two produce could ever be called “little.” It’s had me drooling, I mean dreaming, about the possibilities ever since. Here’s hoping the talk ends and the studio time begins, and soon.
Regarding the set, I voiced no qualms – I was a satisfied customer. However, like any attendee of any show, I had my wish list: “Remain Nameless,” “The Code Is Red…Long Live the Code,” “The Wolf I Feed,” “Upwards and Uninterested,” “Forced to Fear,” and I’ll stop at “Next of Kin to Chaos.” Of course, the band has 16 albums and 200-plus songs to their name, so choosing a setlist each night has got to be a bitch.
“We try, as best as our senile old minds can manage,” Embury said with a grin.
Sonically, Napalm Death and The Melvins couldn’t be further apart. It’s their DIY mentalities and punk-as-fuck attitudes that match. (The life or death of punk the music can go either way with me; it’s the punk ethos – adaptable by anyone – that matters most.) Without a break-up or an extended soul-searching hiatus between the two bands, I think it’s safe to say that we can continue to rely on these behemoths to keep bringing us high-energy, high-quality music for years to come – not because we want them to, but because they want to. As always, my body will be ready.