The band’s new sound is far more compelling than the material mustered for it.
For the first two decades of their existence, the Melvins offered a consistently surprising, rewarding series of studio recordings filled with pummeling sludge, off-kilter lyrics and a sense of humor rendered menacing by the high-volume barrage of the music. Not content to be merely the inventors of sludge metal, the Washington group has also been the genre’s most persistent innovator, regularly crossbreeding their material with such touches as industrial electronic, post-rock, even a kind of corrosive power pop, to say nothing of the unpredictable results of frequent collaboration. Of late, though, albums have perhaps leaned too heavily on that experimental nature, an excuse for King Buzzo and Dale Crover to amuse themselves and tweak their formula without fully challenging themselves.
The gimmickry continues with Pinkus Abortion Technician, which sees the revolving low-end duties of Basses Loaded and raises them with a new two-bassist configuration of recurring collaborator Steven McDonald and the Butthole Surfers’ Jeff Pinkus. On paper, this is a wonderful change-up; Pinkus has played with the band before in brief but thrilling outings, both of Basses Loaded and the superb “Sesame Street Meat” off Hold On, and it should come as no surprise that a veteran of another maverick, avant-garde noise legend of the ‘80s and ‘90s should bring back memories of the Melvins’ glory days. The album-length pairing between these minds is so full of potential that it’s perhaps no wonder that its bookending Surfers covers are, by virtue of their safety, the record’s dullest moments. The first track weds the James Gang’s garage stomper “Stop” with the Surfers’ “Moving to Florida” in unholy matrimony. The “Stop” portion is interesting in its straightforward replication of mildly funky late-‘60s fuzz, complete with light group chants. That light tone collides hard with the cod cornpone antics of “Moving to Florida,” which moves in a shuddering stop-start gait that keeps losing the thread of its own metallic crush. “Graveyard,” for its part, is smoothed out into an almost relaxed bit of noise, sounding curiously like Deerhunter going grunge.
If nothing else, the rest of the album offers up some stranger material. “Embrace the Rub” kicks up the tempo to remind everyone that Melvins grew out of Black Flag more than Black Sabbath. For 100 seconds, the group goes full-tilt, though even this number reveals a crucial detail about this new lineup: by doubling up on bassists, Osborne feels no pressure to tune his guitar down to blanket the low end. Thus his guitar lines float over Crover’s sprinting snares, leaving McDonald and Pinkus to weave in an out of each other with remarkable suppleness. This is an almost graceful side to the band, which is even more evident on “Flamboyant Duck,” which rolls out with some twanging banjo before the bassists begin to thread out an exploring rhythm that never wanders off from the composition but drastically complicates Osborne’s riffs. Similarly, “Break Bread,” ostensibly a casual mid-tempo rocker, features the basses swallowing each other in wah pedal belches.
Yet the true display for this quartet iteration of the Melvins lies in the mammoth “Don’t Forget to Breathe.” The track maintains its core progression throughout, but across eight minutes it keeps piling on details that reorient and reshape the overall composition. First, it’s a molasses-thick grind that recalls the groovy noise rock you might hear in the nightclub in “Twin Peaks,” which is then interrupted by trebly trills of Chinese string instrumentation. The basses plod like dinosaurs navigating through tar pits until Osborne unleashes a dissonant, roaring solo, then, later, an even fiercer one. Electronic buzzes accompany a turn into something almost danceable before white noise ebbs and flows over the whole thing with whirring indifference. Held together by Osborne’s surprisingly soulful vocals and the careful interplay of the bassists with Crover’s dynamic percussion, “Don’t Forget to Breathe” is not merely the best song on the album but one of the finest entries into the contemporary Melvins songbook.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the Melvins’ last decade is that their tendency to try something and immediately move on to the next idea has prevented any of their experiments from developing past a curious self-challenge. Pinkus Abortion Technician is often more promising than the material would suggest; with the exception of “Don’t Forget to Breathe,” nothing sticks in the mind, and most tracks have such a cast-off, casual feel that they give the impression of being too long despite modest song lengths; check the agonizingly drawn out garage cover of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for an exercise in losing the punchline for drawing out a joke too long. Nonetheless, the band’s new sound is far more compelling than the material mustered for it, and it leaves one wanting to see this group hang together and keep playing to see what else they might come up with. The Melvins have made better albums in the last 10 years, but perhaps none that gives such an exciting glimpse into what might be. Here’s hoping this one-off gag turns into a full set.