After nearly 30 years as a going concern, it’s astonishing just how creative the Melvins (or in this case Melvins Lite) continue to be. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised given their reputation and back catalogue, but it would be quite easy for a band to have run out of steam years ago. Melvins Lite – the trio version of the Melvins featuring Buzz Osborne, Dale Crover and Trevor Dunn – have delivered an exciting, fearless, kaleidoscope of an album. Let’s face it, any band that has the confidence to include a cover of the Wings song Let Me Roll It – and deliver a version which is in many ways superior to the original – is a band worth listening to.
The band name – Melvins Lite – is a wry acknowledgement of a slightly different line-up, the original trio having been expanded to a complement of four with the addition of a second drummer, then scaled back and altered slightly with the inclusion of Dunn, a musician whose previous work includes Mr Bungle, and whose current projects include work with avant-garde composer John Zorn (a man to be found playing sax on Napalm Death’s “Utilitarian”). It’s this willingness to experiment with line-up, composition and sound that makes this album both compelling and just plain exciting.
The album opens with double bass and percussion, before settling into a slow paced, almost surf-like guitar passage. The vocal melody is intriguing, and as the song progresses the layered guitars add further colour. What becomes clear very quickly is that this album is not necessarily heading in the direction you expect: just as you’re certain you’ve established the lie of the land, the music changes course and heads off somewhere else entirely. The production is straightforward and there are no overly polished surfaces here, but that’s the point and it works perfectly in this context. Besides, sometimes less is more.
Strings reappear at various points throughout the album, providing both contrast and complement to the often abrasive, punk-infused guitar sound. ‘”Baby, Won’t You Weird Me Out” (great song title) uses a rocky, insistent guitar riff with moments of almost jazz-like bass and constantly moving, restless drums. Just to keep the listener completely off balance the song ends with what appears to be an improvisation on drums and bass. It’s fascinating stuff. And talking of great song titles, why not try “Worm Farm Waltz”, “Freak Puke” and “Tommy Goes Berserk”. Off the wall titles do not a great album make, but they reflect perfectly the off-kilter world view of Melvins Lite.
But don’t think that all the experimentation means Melvins Lite have forgotten how to rock: “Leon vs. The Revolution” is a straight ahead, riff-driven song with the guitar turned up to the max. It’s a great central point for the album and different again to “Holy Barbarians” that follows it. Percussion, strings, guitar harmonics and whispered vocals set a whole new tone for the album, and one that you know will be changed again before the band is finished.
Album closer “Tommy Goes Berserk” revisits the quieter vocals and more subtle instrumentation, but is almost train-like in its tempo, riff and particularly the percussion, building to a crescendo of multi-layered heavy guitar that wills you to move your feet, shake your head and really feel the music, before the final atmospheric section kicks in abruptly and the trio, in suitably weird fashion, is done.
“Freak Puke” delivers surprise and pleasure in equal amounts; at times it will amaze you. Melvins Lite are clearly three musicians still ahead of the curve, still willing to experiment and very much a force to be reckoned with.