The Melvins dial back the bizarro but rock as hard as ever

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Photo by Mat Hayward

If you ask me, I’d say Venue is a little too sexy to host what is one of least sexy rock bands I can think of. From the hot bartenders and cool blue backlighting to the pretentious nightclub booths crowding the centre of the room, it all felt like an odd juxtaposition with the band about to play: average-looking at best, backlit in hellish crimson and piss-yellow, with a curmudgeon sense of honesty. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Venue got chosen simply to avoid unpleasant memories from the last place they played in Vancouver. Fortunately, once the show got underway, the location hardly mattered.

Big Business, composed of the Melvins’ younger half (drummer Coady Willis and bassist Jared Warren) opened the night with a brutal low-end assault. Willis and Warren keep their grooves heavy and mean, plumbing the depths of what one bass player, one drummer, and one raging stack of amplifiers can unleash. That sonic territory can get murky and, from a musical perspective, rather pointless, but I was impressed with their tunefulness and taste. While Big Business’s brand of sludge-rock works for fans who just want to mosh, with deeper listening, musos and aficionados can also find what they’re looking for: riffs with a real sense of movement, Warren’s expressive outsider-rock vocal style, and Willis’s astonishingly taut yet visceral drum performance. It’s no wonder that when the Melvins considered Warren to become their bassist, they couldn’t pass up the chance to include Willis as well.

The Melvins took the stage not long after. In the past, the whole band has donned floral turtleneck nightgown-robes, but this time only guitarist-singer Buzz wore the floor-length costume (this time in the form of a black gown adorned with mystical golden eye designs). Dueling drummers Willis and Dale Crover wore standard t-shirts, while Warren came out dressed in dress pants and shirt, a scarf, and… a black turban. Still, the overall contrast from past performances yielded more of a “hmm” factor than a “huh?,” and although the visuals are hardly the centrepiece of the Melvins experience, the choice to dial back the bizarro costume designs helped to amp up the big, crazy rock show vibe, complete with the name of the band lit up above the stage. The agenda was clear: to entertain the hell out of everyone in the room.

And man, do these people know how to put on a rock show. Their sound can get insanely loud and heavy, but it’s also remarkably dynamic and intelligent. They pulled the audience in with a palpable sense of drama, making them listen with focused anticipation during the quiet parts, driving them mad with the intricacy and tension of their drum beats, and then kicking their asses with a glorious heavy metal roar. And how many bands can pull off this level of ferocity, and mix in three- and four-part vocal harmonies? It’s a colourful style in which they are impeccably practiced, and as irreverent and experimental as this band can get, it all adds up to a highly entertaining show.

Although I maintain that almost any open-minded rock fan off the street could have walked in and fallen under the Melvins’ spell, there were some special moments for those of us who knew the songs. “The Bit” and “Sweet Willy Rollbar” are classics from the early-90s catalogue that stand as testaments to how unique and awesome this band has been since the early days. Civilized Worm” and A History of Bad Men” are key showcases of the brilliant drumming teamwork of Willis and Crover. But the most impressive moment for me was when they played The Bloated Pope”, a selection from Pigs of the Roman Empire. That album showed the Melvins at their meanest and most adventurous, and it was a real privilege to hear them just nail it live.

Even if their previous Vancouver performance hadn’t been soured by an ill-advised cup-toss, I would still have to say this one beat it. The band rocked unbelievably hard, and Big Business made the ideal openers. The Melvins are reissuing several of their classic 90s albums, and this performance serves as evidence for their truly vital place in the history of rock and metal.