For a brief spell in the mid-‘90s, the violently anti-commercial Melvins were signed to Atlantic.
For a brief spell in the mid-‘90s, the violently anti-commercial Melvins were signed to Atlantic, mostly because of their Nirvana associations. Needless to say, they caused trouble pretty quickly. Their major-label debut Houdini was more refined than their prior albums of primordial sludge-metal, but it wasn’t pop and it didn’t chart. Then they released Prick, an album of sound collages, on indie label Boner while still signed to Atlantic. Stoner Witch was even weirder than Houdini. By the time they released their final Atlantic album Stag in 1996, both parties must have smelled trouble. Stag is so bizarre and wantonly experimental it can only be explained one of two ways: the Melvins were trying to get out of their contract, or they just didn’t give a shit.
Stag plays less like a collection of songs than a procession of monkey wrenches. The most conventional songs—“The Bit,” “Bar-X the Rocking M”—are each augmented with unconventional instruments, a sitar and a horn section respectively. Later in the record there’s a bubblegum song about sacrificing a goat (“Black Bock”) and a country-blues song called “Cottonmouth” sung by drummer Dale Crover, whom I suspect had actual cotton in his mouth when he recorded his vocals. And every few tracks, there’s an ambient synth interlude.
It’s diverse enough that some might call it the band’s White Album or Physical Graffiti. But while those albums radiated serious intent, Stag is a hayride. Though the Melvins’ music is always a bit humorous owing to their nonsense lyrics and slightly gross aesthetic, Buzz Osborne usually sounds as serious as a drill sergeant. Here, we can hear him laugh a little. On “Black Bock,” he adopts a relaxed sigh not unlike Micky Dolenz’s, and he spins his famous growl into a hook on the addictive “Tipping the Lion.” Though this is a strange album, it’s hookier than most of the Melvins’ work, and its aesthetic sensibility isn’t quite as dark as we’re used to.
Stag’s lightheartedness is what sells it, and the only really bad tracks are the ones where they aim for dread and aggression. “Goggles” is interminable, a cacophonous fuck-all of molasses-slow noise not unlike Houdini’s “Hag Me.” “Lacrimosa” seems mostly like an experiment in scaring people, its loud drum blasts coming in unpredictably amid tense periods of silence. Granted, the synth interludes are plenty creepy. But unlike the aforementioned tracks, there’s something endearingly cartoonish about them; the one called “Soup” is intercut with bubbling noises not unlike what you might hear coming from a pot of boiling soup.
Stag holds a contentious spot in the Melvins’ discography. At the time it was a complete stylistic left turn from anything they’d done before, and they’d stay that experimental for a full decade until they went back to basics on 2006’s (A) Senile Animal. Critics often revile that period of Melvins’ discography, instead craving their more classic sludge-metal sound. But fans love these mid-period albums as much as any of their classics. Furthermore, the Melvins have been pretty much making variations on A Senile Animal since that album, and it’s a bit boring. Hopefully, as Stag turns 20, it and the music the band would follow it with will get some much-deserved love.