Saturday 23 June 2012


The Melvins and Sunn 0))) were two of many cult bands I have always intended to get obsessed by, without ever quite getting round to it. But more than that, their sounds seemed to have something of an overlap – not just slow is the new fast, but also heavy is the new loud. So bliss it was in that dawn, for everyone and everything except for eardrums, when they played Brighton within a couple of weeks of each other. (Actually Earth, who played earlier in the year, made something of a trilogy of it, but I couldn't wait to write something about them.)

Concorde 2, Mon 28th May

“What's the most horrible way to die?”
To have a nail banged through the back of my neck. Slowly.”

That quote, from Lindsey Anderson's 'If', sums up the sound of the Melvins better than anything I could imagine. Often described as Black Flag meeting Black Sabbath, they've been at their distillation of hardcore punk and pounding metal for nearly three decades now. Which is more than long enough to get good at this.

The twin drummers don't just keep time, like an onstage click track, but make up much of the body of the sound. You feel the set as much as you hear it. The room vibrates. People headbang. Not just nod merrily along, but proper actual headbanging. I can't remember when I last saw that at a gig!

There's a virtuous combination to them. With their Simpsons-style look, they seem like four crazy guys found in some nearby alley were thrust on stage after the actual band failed to show. But they also put on the smartest, tightest, kick-ass show you will ever see. They push one riff to the very limit of endurance, then seamlessly break off into something else. Though (whatever naysayers claim) you can perfectly easy tell their tracks apart, they pretty much run them together live, sensing their sound's about relentless intensity. We cram in cheering when we can, like an upstaged understudy.

There's a clear 'take it or leave it' attitude from the band, like they're long-used to polarising audiences and there's precious use talking about it. But let's make some attempt...

Actually, there's a double virtuous combination to them. They don't have a fusion sound, stirring elements of hardcore and metal into a concoction, they fuse them together into a single sonic assault. They're a malt not a blend! They unceremoniously jettison the downside of metal, the uber-theatrical stageyness, the chest-puffing frontman, the overlong screechy guitar solos. But they also play the same trick on hardcore...

The best hardcore bands (Bad Brains, Fugazi, the Minutemen) were wild but disciplined, with a surprising but distinct undertone of restraint. The worst hardcore bands were wild and undisciplined; listening to them was like thumbing a lift with an inexperienced joyrider, one big jolt and it was all over. The Melvins took Bad Brains' discipline and combined it with the lumbering force of metal.

The worst hardcore bands were like one of those latter-day zombies who move fast, they'd constantly jump up only to get dispatched. The Melvins are like the true, original zombies. They're slow, but you just know they're going to get you.

Music histories, when they mention the band at all, pair them with Flipper as an influence on grunge. Which is an influence that can't be denied. First drummer (they now have two) Dale Crover played on Nirvana's 'Bleach' while their original bassist, Matt Lukin, formed Mudhoney. But this rather limits their influence to a single direction. The doom drone band Boris named themselves after a Melvins song, while there's an obvious overlap between their sound and noise rock bands such as Live Skull. Wikipedia claims they pioneered a whole genre of 'sludge metal.' (No, I've not heard of any of the bands either.)

But beyond that pairing them with Flipper blunts the unique appeal of both bands. There's no real metal element to Flipper's sound. Unusually for a West Coast hardcore band, their music was made by bohemians - languid, arch and disdainful. A huge part of their appeal was the combination of overwhelming force with the sense they could barely be bothered to play. Perhaps relatedly they were a volatile element, which burnt brightly but briefly. No wonder they weren't heavy metal, they were actually something more sparky - maybe magnesium.

The Melvins are much more like a bluecollar band, they play a gig like they're working it. 'The Water Glass' is almost their anthem, their equivalent to the Ramones' 'Blitzkrieg Bop', or perhaps even the Seven Dwarves 'Heigh Ho': “Here we go/Everyday/Here we go/All the way/In the groove/On the move... Pain!/In my head/Pain!/In my back/We don't care/We like it there.”

But worse this influence business makes the band a mere linking device, a component, not a thing in their own right. If they were a huge influence on others, that's hardly their story spent. There were many bands in that era who were influential without being particularly good. (Have you listened much to MDC in recent years?) Yet I saw Mudhoney in this self-same venue a couple of years ago, and as the record shows I thought them awesome. But the Melvins were better still - more out there, more relentless, more doing their own thing.

They're are a classic band who's stayed cultish, filling the venue with a clearly devoted following but without a 'Nevermind' to their name. We might wonder why not. Perhaps the greater success of Mudhoney, let alone Nirvana, stems not just from them sounding more accessible but also being more personalised. See them live and Mark Arm comes out at you, confrontational and engaging. The two drummers and two guitarists of the Melvins are arranged symmetrically, with a distinct centre-stage gap where Arm had stood. Vocals sit inside the general mix, rather than riding on the top. Audience banter is not prevalent. (Disclaimer: they made two albums with Jello Biafra, one of the great frontmen of punk if not of music. But that's the exception, not the rule.)

But if the game is getting down to the essence of rock and roll, isn't this nearer to it? Adolescence isn't challenging and articulate, it's sullen and noisily introspective, disdainful of communication. This sound channels the black cloud of adolescence much better.

Before the gig, I get drawn into a conversation on how it took American bands to marry metal to punk. On first sight it's odd. People argue about who pioneered heavy riffing (early Kinks or Black Sabbath), but either way it's a British band. And at the height of British punk came the perfect crossover invite, Motorhead, a metal band loved by punks to a man. Why no British punk band who completed the circle by appealing to the metal heads? (The one exception to this rule, Discharge, I confess have never appealed to me as much as to others.)

Perhaps coming from Britain was the very problem. Only when seen from outside did it become clear how well the pieces could join together. And in Britain music was notoriously tribal. In America, Talking Heads could play bills with the Ramones without comment. In fact, greater geographical distances instead made for city tribalism within music scenes, as evidenced by the notoriously titled Boston hardcore compilation 'This is Boston Not LA.' Joining sounds was easier, joining people was harder.

As I suspect you need to hear a few tracks to get the band, I'm posting longer links than usual. If you like this (the first of two twelve-minute clips from Brighton)...

...then I think you'll love this. (Over an hour live at Hellfest, from last year. Sit back. Enjoy.)

My Spotify playlist for American hardcore and punk...

Brighton Coalition, Sun 10th June

You could probably spend all night playing compare and contrast between the Melvins and doom drone outfit Sunn 0))). Both do slow/heavy like you've never heard it before. But against those double drummers Sunn 0))) have little if any percussion. And if the Melvins eschew metal's theatricality, this lot actively play it up. They poured so much dry ice over us I swear at times I had trouble seeing the person standing next to me. Combined with the feedback, reverb and delay which characterises their sound, there were times where the band could have left the stage ten minutes ago and we would be yet to notice. When a passing break in the clouds allows you to see the band, they're cowelled like monks. They go in for upraised fists and held-aloft guitars.

It helps that we're in a venue hollowed out from the seafront arches, which is essentially a cave. But that image of monks with guitars before a wall of speakers, like some Seventies SF-on-drugs film, will stay with me a while. Yes it was ritualised. But in the good sense of the word. What might sound gimmicky or just plain daft, works so well with the music you wouldn't wish it any other way.

If with the Melvins you felt the music almost as much as you heard it, here you hear it almost as much as you feel it. It wasn't (no small boast) just one of the loudest gigs I've attended. The music was omnipotent and all-embracing, as if it was a physical object, filling the room as much as the dry ice. You don't stand outside listening to it, like the audial equivalent of looking at a picture, you're in it.

...which means the way you need to hear them is live. The Melvins may be primarily a live band, but Sunn O))) are a live experience. There's recordings of them in the same way there's fuzzy photos of the Loch Ness Monster, that's just after-the-fact documentation.

It's certainly an approach that splits reaction. As soon as you agree some music has to be loud, some get dismissive. Just like your parents used to cluelessly complain, they repeat the mantra “it's just a noise.” But it's like saying the pyramids have to be big. That doesn't mean they're just big, just that the bigness is an essential component. And if they seem to sound like thrash slooooooowed doooooooown, you're not the first to say that. And besides, that's a good thing.

And being somewhere where you had to be there, having an experience that isn't YouTubeable in our streaming, twittering age... that's appealing in and of itself. (I don't bother reading YouTube comments much, but it's notable how negative a reaction Sunn O))) clips tend to invoke. One clip poster was driven to mention “Drone metal, if you don't like it, don't listen to it.”)

...which isn't to say that the band have assembled some cross between a wind tunnel and a travelling fairground ride. At first their resounding drone sound hits you so hard it might appear merely a sound. But as it progresses and your ears become more accustomed to it, more and more variety within it opens up. The gig posters and tickets were in sheer black, which on closer inspection turned out to be slightly different shades of off-black. (Leading me to wonder if there had been a brisk trade in counterfeit tickets cut from black card.) Which seems a pretty good metaphor for their music. It's like going into a dark room where all seems indistinguishable, but the longer you stay there the more objects take form. (Disclaimer, I did previously use this metaphor for Mechanical Children. But if the shoe fits...)

In fact, conversely to such expectations, the whole set was one long piece which seemed closer in structure to classical music than to rock songs - not just composed of movements but reliant on you discerning the overall shape of it.

Andrew Rilstone (aka World's Smartest Fan) once said of fantasy fans: “This is the key to why Tolkien became so very important to me... What I wanted was the idea-of-elves, the idea-of-orcs, the idea-of-caves and the idea-of-dwarves. I read Tolkien because it was the only place I knew where I could get them... If you could find a way of separating the archetypes from the boring business of having to read then that would do the trick.”
It seems to me there's something very similar for us out-there music fans, except with us we found a way to make it happen. Take a classic rock song like the Stones''Satisfaction.' The words are sharp, witty and at times eminently quotable. But they're entirely secondary. Their job is to hang out with the music, complementing it where necessary. It's the music that lets us plug into that yearning, burning feeling.
Haven't you at some point found yourself obsessively playing one track over and over? By ceaselessly pressing the replay button you can almost put it on a loop. But what you really want is to dispense with the intro, the guitar solo in the middle, the verse/chorus structure, all the intrusive paraphernalia that turn the track into a song. You want the audial equivalent of an art installation, something you can step inside and stay there as long as you want.
Not that adolescent angst of 'Satisfaction' is necessarily the emotional experience on offer here. In a music scene dogged by accusations of Satanism since the Black Sabbath days, all that religious imagery may seem a hostage to fortune. (Though 'Satanism' strikes me as tedious rather than threatening, quite frankly.) But, having only recently questioned the quasi-religious iconography of 'Live_Transmission', this time I found it the thing to do. (Perhaps partly because it wasn't focused on an individual.) The amps as altars, the guitars as crucifixes... they're intended not to wind up Moral Majority types so much as celebrate the transforming power of sound.
That name conveys our solar system's most powerful force, the band's preferred supplier of amps and a pictogram of the waves of force emanating from both. (You're not expected, incidentally, to try and pronounce the 0))) part.) One day I will post something which just lists the axioms of Lucid Frenzy. (We had “beware all projects” only recently.) This time let's go with the one about art being at root a shamanic process, a ritual event aimed at inducing altered states of consciousness. It feels entirely appropriate for Sunn 0))) to be playing on a Sunday. It really does.
The assembled crowd are part of the sense of the event but, especially when the dry ice settles around you, the experience is very individualised. If headbanging was the audience response of choice to the Melvins, many in the crowd here keep their eyes closed. You're aware of the mass of people, but the focus is the effect upon you. It's individualised and collective. You couldn't get more shamanic than that.
Only recently I was arguing that folk music combines a sense of the strange with one of the strangely familiar. Something similar seems true of this seemingly quite different style of music. Just as it initially appears an overwhelming monolithic force which later reveals subtleties, similarly the sonic assault appears dark and menacing but inexplicably shifts into something warm and even peaceful. As one (unusually articulate) YouTube poster puts it, “it sounds like heaven and hell have just come together, that's the only way I can explain this song.” And yes. Yes it does.
Seeing gigs... even good gigs... starts out as a thrillingly unpredictable venture but becomes like seeing films after a while. It stops feeling like a physical, interactive experience, it becomes safe and measured. You know what time you'll be in and out, and pretty much what will happen inbetween. Then sometimes you go to a gig which seems so strange and other-worldly, it's like you need a whole new set of words to describe it.
Go and see Sunn O))) if you ever get the chance. It's beyond description. It really is.
After telling you the whole thing was non-YouTubeable, I am inevitably about to post a YouTube clip. Particularly with a set that's one long track this snippet is woefully inadequacy, but might serve to give you some flavour...
There's plenty other tracks and live clips on YouTube (if bugger all on Spotify), but this one was my favourite, 'Orthodox Caveman' playing (in a stroke of genius) over a video of the critical point of water.
My YouTube playlist for 'Slow is the New Fast' (Suggestions for additions gratefully received.)

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