There’s always been something a little fascist about heavy metal. Putting aside the violent imagery, the sexist lyrics and the glaring absence of femininity, the tyranny of metal demanded conformity; conformity to the mathematical exactitude of double bass drums and power chords, minor scales played at blistering speeds, to a uniform of denim and leather, to the act of hair farming and leather wallets on metal chains.
The Melvins have spent the better part of three decades rebelling against the autocracy of their genre, and in the process carved out a niche for themselves as a unique and visionary band, mixing the heavy-lidded precision of desert stoner rock with the expressive chaos of jazz. Not that you’re going to hear any horns. The jazz elements arrive primarily through the unstuck-in-time drumming of Dale Crover, whose cavern-sized drum tracks have swallowed entire galaxies and bent the time-space continuum.
Bolstered by a rotating ensemble of bass players throughout the years, the core Melvins duo of guitarist King Buzzo Osbourne and drummer Dale Crover has collaborated with everybody from Jello Biafra to Leif Garrett and Kurt Cobain. Now, they find themselves enmeshed in a new side project, Crystal Fairy, fronted by Le Butcherettes’ vocalist Teri Gender Bender, while her husband, Mars Volta and At The Drive-In’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, takes up the low-end on the bass.
Borne of a tour The Melvins did with Le Butcherettes, this newest collaboration reignites the band’s battle with genre conformity as the familiar end of the world dyspepsia is tempered by a voice that is part Dorothy and part Wicked Witch.
Teri Gender Bender’s voice is somewhere west of PJ Harvey and east of Siouxsie Sioux, and the cat fur softness of her voice in songs like “Drugs on the Bus” rises to angry and anthemic screams on “Moth Tongue,” matching the hard pummeling aggression of the music when her claws come out.
The music is what fans have come to expect from The Melvins: rock solid slabs of dense metal, Sabbath-y power chords, complex rhythms and intricate, riff-heavy arrangements full of off-kilter changes. What’s missing is the weird. Gone are the long industrial noise experiments and washes of feedback. There are moments when you can hear Buzz’s guitar struggling against the formulaic “Jesus Built My Hotrod” sound of “Chiseler,” but the rhythm section of Crover and Lopez seems content to maintain the rut-like groove.
“Drugs on the Bus” starts with some almost funky syncopated bass. Gender Bender sings over the spooky keyboard track before the band breaks into a sludgy groove. Bender’s vocals are ghostly, and her vaguely malevolent falsetto soars through Eastern-sounding scales. On “Necklace of Divorce,” Bender sounds like PJ Harvey singing over AM radio guitar, “You want loving/ You want huh huh huh!”
It’s great to hear The Melvins’ familiar aural assault fronted by a powerful woman singer. The album takes a sledgehammer to the testosterone-gilded chambers built of guitar sludge and fragile male egos, freeing the music from the constraints of the genre and inviting the listener to cast off their shackles and set sail for new land. A little rebellion when we need it the most.
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