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The Melvins: the most influential rock band you don’t know of

For nearly 40 years, they have remained a cult band, under the mainstream radar despite their huge influence across genres

The Melvins performing at the Alhambra in Paris in October 2018. (Getty Images)

It is not uncommon to come across a great band that became a cult favourite but remained under the mainstream radar. It is, however, uncommon to come across one that has not only gathered a fiercely loyal cult following but stayed away from the mainstream and lasted nearly four decades.

The Melvins, formed in 1983 in Washington state, are such a band. Hugely influential across several genres, they remain largely unknown outside their ring of devout followers.

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First, a bit about how influential they have been. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most of the well-known alternative, grunge and hard rock bands of the late 1980s and early 1990s were influenced by the Melvins. Nor would it be incorrect to say that many of today’s loudest drone, sludge and heavy metal bands owe their inspiration to them. If it were not for the Melvins, it is likely that we wouldn’t have had Nirvana or drone metal front-runners such as Boris, the experimental band from Japan, and America’s Sunn O))). In fact, the late Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s singer, was once a roadie for the Melvins. And it was their frontman, Roger “Buzz” Osborne, who introduced Nirvana to Dave Grohl, who would become their drummer.

The Melvins have been prolific. Since 1987, they have released at least 29 full-length studio albums, several EPs, compilations and live albums. The reason they have remained outside the mainstream may be partly that their work is not easy to categorise—or even like. Their brand of music is not everybody’s cup of tea. Born in the punk underground scene of the 1980s, they took punk’s iconoclastic garage rock and added the massive sound of heavy metal bands such as that pioneered by the celebrated British band Black Sabbath.

The Melvins are an acquired taste. Fronted by singer and guitarist Buzz Osborne, with his wild hairstyle, and with drummer Dale Crover and bassist Steven Shane McDonald, their career can only be described as a long strange trip. For one, their lineup has seen several bassists (before McDonald) come and go, including famous ones like Lori Black, daughter of the singer Shirley Temple, and Matt Lukin, who went on to co-found the Seattle grunge band Mudhoney. Crover was, for a short period, the drummer for Nirvana.

In fact, the changes in the drum section over the years, and the guest musicians invited to play from time to time, have had a lot to do with the band’s hugely varied soundscape.

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At first listen, their music can be baffling. If you dive into the deepest end—their most ambitious album, 1996’s Stag—you may find its 16 tracks so unexpected that it is hard to believe a mainstream label such as Atlantic Records agreed to release it. The tracks zigzag between genres, taking you on a weird, bewildering roller-coaster ride.

Take the opener, The Bit. It opens with a repetitive chord on a sitar before burgeoning into a full-blooded heavy metal blow-up, droning down-tuned guitars, frenzied drumming and raspily delivered abstract lyrics.

In the second song, Hide, it is a 48-second keyboard and guitar interlude that seems improbable from a heavy rock band. In the third track, Bar-X The Rocking M, trumpets unexpectedly complement speedy guitar riffs. And, then, further into the album, there’s The Bloat, where basslines and snare drums conjure a nearly jazz-like ambience before Osborne sings lyrics that seem ridiculously incomprehensible: I ain’t nothing to the notice/ Eight hundred miles of prime/ We be plain Jack belt loaded/ I pause, I holler/ Still powder line/ Selling bulge egg tourniquette. Make what you want of those lines but they certainly reaffirm the weirdness of the Melvins.

That weirdness is evident through all their discography. In late July, they caught fans off guard with the release of an acoustic version of one of their popular songs, Night Goat. Originally from another of their representative albums, Houdini (1993), the heavy rock track gets a tender acoustic treatment.

It is also a taste of things to come. In October, the band will be releasing a massive four-LP album of 36 songs, all rendered acoustically, with not only their most popular songs but also covers, including some songs by the Rolling Stones and Alice Cooper. Characteristically irreverent, Osborne, now 57, said in a press release: “One acoustic record seems like a joke and two is pretty normal, but doing four?!? That’s like going to war against an army of gorillas on LSD.”

That’s the other thing about Osborne. He wades into controversies. Commenting on Nirvana’s short-lived career and Cobain’s premature death by suicide, he once said: “I would much rather have somebody like Kurt Cobain be completely unsuccessful and alive than successful one day.”

The Melvins’ discography can seem like an unchartable ocean. But there are so many hidden, fascinating treasures to discover. Not just their own songs but also those by others they have covered. Check out, for instance, their version of The Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand. Or their bootleg album, Cover Songs, on which they do tracks by everyone from Ramones to Kiss and The Velvet Underground.

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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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