How? How is it possible that a band celebrating its 30th anniversary can still crank out albums at a pace that would impress 60s-era James Brown? And how is it fathomable that those releases, while perhaps not being the best of the group’s career, are still great fun to listen to? The Melvins continue to break all notions of sense, not to mention all barriers of taste and decency, as they enter into their fourth decade together. Earlier this year they graced us with Everybody Loves Sausages, a remarkably substantial covers collection that showcased influences both obscure (Tales of Terror, The Fugs) and surprisingly mainstream (Queen). And now a mere six months later, they’ve returned with Tres Cabrones, which showcases yet another new configuration of members; or rather, a very old one.
The publicity around this release has focussed on the inclusion of original drummer Mike Dillard, who played for the band in 1983 and until now had never appeared on a full-length release with them. (Longtime drummer Dale Crover switched to bass for this album.) The reinstatement of an old member hasn’t resulted in a throwback or nostalgia exercise, though. Though there are nods to the hardcore punk sound the band played during Dillard’s initial tenure in covers of songs by Pop-o-Pies and the Lewd, this release has more in common with their later albums with Big Business members Jared Warren and Coady Willis. Songs like “City Dump” and “American Cow” are vintage Melvins, mixing together crunchy guitars, stomping drums and relatively catchy song structures in a similar way to the best songs on Nude With Boots or The Bride Screamed Murder. Elsewhere, the electronic squalls that permeate “I Told You I Was Crazy”, and the acoustic guitar flourishes that help flesh out the back stretch of slow-burner “Dogs and Cattle Prods”, hearken back to the sonic experimentation displayed on 1996’s Stag.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Melvins album without a healthy dose of weird. Buzz Osborne’s vocals are as nonsensical as ever, of course, but the obvious showcases for the band’s prankster sensibility are found on the goof freakouts “Tie My Pecker To A Tree”, “99 Bottles of Beer”, and “You’re In The Army Now”, which come off like nothing so much as a campfire sing-along between friends messing around and having fun. You could describe the entire album that way, really: some buddies getting the (old version of the) band back together, not worrying too much about the results, and just seeing what happens. The result certainly isn’t an all-time high for the band- it’s sometimes easy to get frustrated at how often contemporary Melvins releases follow the same formula of knotty-but-catchy rock jams, extended metal stomps and tossed-off noise experiments. At the same time, it’s a small miracle that a group releasing this many albums this far into a 30-year career consistently reaches such a high average. Even the band’s lesser releases have plenty to recommend them, and this go-around is no exception.
Overall, Tres Cabrones is a more engaging listen than last year’s Melvins-as-a-trio effort Freak Puke, which featured some sterling upright bass work from avant-garde maestro Trevor Dunn, but was marred by muddy production and a relative lack of energy. Here, the shake-up of the traditional band arrangement seems to have revitalised Buzz’n’Dale somewhat, and while Dillard isn’t quite the drumming virtuoso Crover is, he plays with power and precision, recalling his bandmate’s signature style while still finding room for his own individual touches. You could argue it’s partly this willingness to try out new band set-ups that has kept the band sounding so fresh for so long. In any case, here’s hoping that there’s still a Melvins line-up of some description playing inventive, off-kilter music in time for their 40th anniversary.
Tres Cabrones is released tomorrow on Ipecac Recordings. Check out the video below to hear the album’s opening track, “Dr Mule”.