“…if you were coming to Freak Puke expecting to hear the Melvin’s softer side, you’d be quite far off the mark.” – MacDara on the Melvins‘ 18th studio LP Freak Puke.
It’s been a decade since the Melvins were last a trio on record, having spent the last few years as a strange hybrid with Coady Willis and Jared Warren of Big Business, adding extra oomph to their rhythm section. But for their 18th studio album (an impressive feat in itself) the heart and soul of the band, guitarist/singer Buzz Osborne and drummer Dale Crover, have dropped the younger fellas from the line-up in favour of former Mr Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, who brings a new ingredient to the Melvins stew with his bowed double bass.
The band have renamed themselves Melvins-Lite for live performances in this latest configuration, which does have its precedents. Japanese noiseniks Melt-Banana also have a ‘Lite’ version, making a stripped-back but intense racket with just vocals, drums and theremin. Taking them as a lead, if you were coming to Freak Puke expecting to hear the Melvins’ softer side, you’d be quite far off the mark.
First track ‘Mr Rip Off‘ sets the scene immediately, sounding like a lounge act from Hell. Dale Crover’s drumming swings while Buzz Osbourne’s guitar lines vibrate drunkenly as he croons with a tangible malevolence. And then Trevor Dunn’s demented double bass takes over – he’s scraping and strangling the strings like a crazed sculptor trying to twist into form the sound in his head. Pretty intense stuff.
‘Inner Ear Rupture‘ gives those big Melvins riffs their first airing, but they quickly give way to more insane contrabass manipulations. Indeed, the first classic Melvins rock-out doesn’t come till ‘Baby, Won’t You Weird Me Out‘ and even that defies their conventions, collapsing on itself around a freak-out double bass solo. They’re typical of this suite of compositions that often begin by abiding the Melvins SOP but never go where you expect.
That last song and the subsequent ‘Worm Farm Waltz‘ and ‘A Growing Disgust‘ also see Buzz take the low end off his guitar to accentuate the bass in a manner not too different from the Minutemen’s polarised sonic dynamic, the contrast between D Boon’s trebly riffing and Mike Watt’s thud-staff melodies. It’s also a bit of a nod to the FM-friendly sound of 1970s classic rock. Not that this record is destined for any normal radio – don’t worry, they haven’t gone and turned into Foghat overnight. ‘Leon vs The Revolution‘ might be steeped in that same pot-smoke aura, but the snarled vocals – multi-tracked for an even greater fear factor – instill a paranoia that doesn’t even exist in the darkest Black Sabbath tunes. ‘Holy Barbarians‘ maintains that unsettling vibe, with a riff that recalls Q And Not U’s ‘Dine’ of all things, before Buzz gets his creep on over a swirling backdrop of electric and acoustic strings that twist and blend together.
The title track comes next, and it’s another classic-rock-inspired Melvins-branded stomper that will surely become a staple of their live set. Speaking of things being Melvins-branded, it’s hard to believe that ‘Let Me Roll It‘ is a Wings cover, as Buzz and Dale make it sound so EVIL. It’s a brooding beast of a song, itching to rip chunks out of Paul McCartney’s face.
Then comes the epic closer ‘Tommy Goes Berserk‘. It’s the opposite of berserk for the first half, as the band settles into a relatively soft groove with a plaintive melody, but Melvins being Melvins, they can’t keep the riffs buried inside for too long and they come bursting out in the second half, drum fills rolling and guitar solos squealing all over the place – capped off with a slime-drenched reprise of the record’s earlier sonic weirdness, complete with mental vocal manipulations and samples of gurgling I-don’t-know-what. It’s a fitting conclusion to a veritable statement of an album, ‘lite’ by name but heavy-as-fuck by nature.