As they approach their 30th year of existence, The Melvins have accomplished what no other band of the modern generation has: they keep getting better with each release. The core members Dale Crover on drums/vocals and Buzz Osbourne (a.k.a. King Buzzo) on guitar/vocals have worked tirelessly to reinvent themselves over the years. The full-throttle punk of their early years, the sludgy yet calculating time of the early 90’s Atlantic Records years and the ultra polished technical wizardry of their last three albums all have a deserved spot in the hearts of rock aficionados, and on this, the second of a four-night stand at the soon-to-be-renamed Spaceland, each era was served up like a little slice of counter culture Heaven.
Three distinct sets were played on this evening. The first of which had only been performed by the band a handful of times before, and never in Los Angeles. Affectionately dubbed “Melvins 1983,” Crover (on bass) and Osbourne were joined by the band’s original drummer Mike Dillard. Osbourne quipped with the crowd that their intention was to play material from 1983 like they did when it was 1983. They asked the crowd to bear with them if they made any mistakes since it had been so long since the songs had been played in regularity. Culling almost all of the songs from their 2005 reboot Mangled Demos From 1983, the set opened with instrumental “Walter,” a number edging close to what might be considered surf metal. “Forgotten Principles,” “If You Get Bored” and the timeless “Set Me Straight” filled out the short set. Dillard’s approach to his old chaotic drumming hit the mark as the pulse was more urgent and of-the-moment, in the true punk fashion in which the band began. The band’s knack for thoughtful songwriting was evident even at this early stage, as numerous tricks the band would use to awe-inspiring effect can be picked out in eye-opening moments.
Nary a moment wasted, Dillard left, Crover took his usual seat behind the drum kit and the remaining half of the band Jared Warren (bass/vocals) and Coady Willis (drums/vocals) darted out on stage. The drill sergeant call-and-response of The Bride Screamed Murder track “The Water Glass” dialed up the energy quickly, and within mere moments one fact became clear: the band sounded fucking great. Osbourne’s howling vocals were sharp and inviting. Warren’s responses bellowed with a joyful ogre-like growl and the two drummers… well… is it possible to put the “mmmm” in drumming? The sinister blasts and ascending/descending chords of “Evil New War God” were next before edging slightly backwards into “The Kicking Machine” and “Civilized Worm.” If that wasn’t enough, the band then brought out Mastodon’s Brent Hinds as a special guest. After singing a four-part “Happy Birthday” to him, they played an unusually faithful rendition of their classic “The Bit” from The Stag. The sitar-infused lick evoked an otherworldly atmosphere and the plodding riffs rocked impossibly harder than the described tempo might appear to.
A slightly longer break came next and the band jumped right into a set filled with highlights from what many hardcore fans consider to be their best album, Houdini. The droning, overpowering distortion of “Hag Me” started things off right, allowing the band to make the best use of their trademark mega-slow crescendo effect. Buzzo snarled and wailed while each chord rang out with haunting vibrations. Some of the group’s most beloved, semi-approachable numbers directly followed: “Hooch,” “Honey Bucket,” “Night Goat” and “Lizzy.” Each was a somewhat shocking array of rock-re-envisioned-as-art dynamics. “Hooch” was a human word-less high-octane assault. “Honey Bucket” was a start/stop/start fury of intricate time signatures and a one-verse outro. The thudding opening notes of “Night Goat” became a shitstorm of sonic feedback. And “Lizzy” took loud-quiet-loud to the places only rumored about to those that remember real alternative music. One of the band’s few cover tracks “Goin’ Blind” provoked the loudest response. The KISS song’s chorus of “‘Cause I think I’m going blind / and I know how it’s to be,” had the capacity crowd shouting in unison. The walking bassline of “Sky Pup” showed off the lighter sound of the band with nimble melodic changeovers. The unforgettable intro on “Joan of Arc,” a staccato palm-muted chord coupled with a escalating snippet of ferocious lyrics, exploded into a full-on blood curdling scream. The crowd ate it up, and the floor was a writhing mass of moshing bodies.
The entire affair came to a close with the pummeling (and decidedly less splashy version of its album counterpart) “Spread Eagle Beagle.” Here, Willis and Crover were joined by Mike Dillard and Totimoshi’s Chris Fugitt for a percussive series of poly-rhythms that told their own story. Simultaneously keeping one consistent rhythmic motif and blending it with undulating, alternating tempos, it was less drum solo and more “drum orchestra.” Bassist Warren hung around to supply accompanying feedback. Just as he was about to exit, Crover could be seen whispering something to him. Warren picked up his bass again and joined with a vocal melody. At first indecipherable amidst the thunderous hits, it turned out that he was singing “Put it on your pizza / P – I – Z – Z – A.” For whatever reason, it really worked, adding just enough splice of humor to an otherwise precision technical display. King Buzzo returned and the band sang their recent tradition of a four-part a cappella version of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
It’s time like these as a writer that you only hope your words do justice to the work and craftsmanship put into a show like this. The Melvins have been around a long time, but something is unavoidably clear with this show. They’ve accomplished the rare feat of actually progressing and improving with age. The odd and eventual complications of comfort, laziness and complacency have had no effect on them. They step up their craft with every outing and every show. Unapologetically ratcheting up their own skill and cohesion, it’s like the idea of shallow, thoughtless hard rock never occurred to them. Beyond even genres where distorted guitars are common, it begs to be said. The Melvins make just about every other band look bad. All acts escaping the sophomore—or perhaps just hoping to—take note: if you’re not trying this hard to stay relevant as an artist, you’re not much of an artist at all.