Houdini: the pinnacle of 90s Melvins … poke about the reviews and it always bags the biggest marks, topping many a most recommended pile – Houdini’s the one everyone seems to know about, it’s the one that’s got Kurt Cobain on it (a big deal at the time), and it’s the one that the band played in full for their Don’t Look Back gig in 2005, so maybe it’s me who’s missing some sort of point somewhere BUT … great though it is, Houdini* ain’t the album that best captures Melvins’ absurd beauty and ugly brilliance.
Stag throws up EVERYTHING the Melvins are capable of, and that’s why it’s the place to get inside – or at least, get us non-Melvins yoomans somewhere close to – the scattershot strangeness/normalised weirdness pervading their inscrutable heads. Trippy, rocking, perverse, ambient, playful and all-out terrifying, Stag is wildly experimental without being tedious or pisstakingly relentless. Listen to Stag and every direction Melvins ever took starts to make sense, and this may be, paradoxically, because the album is less beholden to the Melvins’ key identifier til that point: the Buzz Riff. They’re in there, twistedly precise as ever, but to reach Melvins’ sustained heights of heavy quirk, you need more than riffs: you need imagination, freedom and fuck-you, and Stag is where all of that behind-the-eyes odderness explodes from the off.
First track The Bit is one of the best Melvins tracks ever, no question: sitar intro meets full-blown mother of a riff, it pounds you to the spot. It’s big – maybe bigger than any Melvins before it. Not because it’s longer or louder, but because it’s FULLER, and it’s this fullness that makes The Bit – and Stag – a mandatory Mel trip.
After a lysergic interlude (Hide) that’s rooted in Stoner Witch (Shevil), we crash on Bar-X-The Rocking-M, a reckless burst of trumpet (yes!!!) and turntable (???) shot through with Tool-esque hush n’ calm. Nothing like Yacob’s Lab – ambient – and The Bloat – stoner slider groover – that follow, and by now we know that, on Stag, anything goes. Every single one of the 16 tracks is unlike any other on the album**, so they are all highlights – here are a few, grouped into shitly-named (by me) categories.
Rock Hard Stag
AKA megawatt amplification and guitar Buzz. Buck Owens does freewheeling juggernaut clatter, Captain Pungent rocks the off beats into a seamless flow into Berthas, which burns a tight 70s 12-bar in your addled mey gratter, and remember we have The Bit and Bar-X front-loading the show. No shortage of rock hardy on Stag.
You want a minute and a half of bubbling liquid? That’s Soup. Lilting dreaminess? Black Bok. Back-porch railtrack blues? Cottonmouth. Chipmunks on a fuck-knows? Skin Horse. No, you couldn’t make it up … except, they did (but how?).
Ugly in the Morning Stag
You want a minute and a half of bubbling liquid? That’s Soup. OK, we just filed it as a quiet/goof job but the fact that it’s served up straight after Goggles curdles the appeal somewhat, and that’s coz Goggles IS fucking terrifying – slo-core noise by a serial killer’s house band, feat. Fudgetunnel’s Alex Newport on skin-peeling production. Says it all. Later on: Sterilized, a dank hellmare of pre-torture warm-up music, and Lacrimosa‘s slow Melv-o creep fest.
All of this experimentation means that Stag isn’t the album that most represents a Melvins sound – if such a thing exists – but it surely is the album that most represents THEM, as a band. Dale Crover makes the space to loom large – The Bloat, Tipping the Lion, Buck Owens – and the record points to any stage, phase or whim of the band’s career, like a Plus One companion for any Melvins album you’ll ever play.
The band got dropped by Atlantic after Stag, making it the last of their major-label years – some reward for such a kaleidoscopic splat of psychedelic greatness, eh? But it’s hard to imagine Melvins giving a fuck. 21 years later, most of them on Ipecac, they’re as prolific and uncompromising as ever, and the list of artists indebted to their stubborn genius is longer than ever. Me, I gotta thank Stag for a mind-opening induction to Melvins world and to what rock bands can do if they’ve got the vision. It’s a Lifer, this one.
Melvins without limits.
* Hooch, Night Goat, Honey Bucket, Teet et al are diamonds for sure, but there’s a reason why Houdini is the third favourite of the three Atlantic albums: Spread Eagle Beagle. Has anyone played Houdini and actually looked forward to hearing this nine-minute momentum bummer at the end, peterin’ out the album’s singular rock vibe? Surely no. Stoner Witch hangs together much better – Revolve and Roadbull, fucking HELL – and the syrupy ambience of Shevil hints at Stag’s many outer limits.
** Butthole Surfers’ Independent Worm Saloon is another oddballin’ major label beaut from that era. Musically more focused than what went before, Inde Worm Sal bends any number of styles into its 17 tracks. Produced by John Paul Jones, released 1993 on Capitol, always worth a revisit.