It’s only right to celebrate the silver anniversary of the legendary doom rockers’ second Atlantic LP on Hallowe’en
Has there been, before or since, a more accurate album title for a Melvins disc than Stoner Witch?
Somehow, that blend of druggy and spooky iconography perfectly underlines King Buzzo and company’s mandate – slow, sludgy metal riffs melting in a cruel sun, spiked with a bleak sense of humor and self-awareness. At a time where the band’s ostensibly ‘grunge’-oriented peers were cagier and defensive about their classic rock aping, the Melvins embraced such touchstones unironically, even reverently. This naked honesty of intent, of sorts, is what’s continued to set the Melvins apart from their many alternative nation compatriots that have since been consigned to obscurity.
Longtime Melvins hanger-on Kurt Cobain helped produce 1993’s Houdini, which may have raised the band’s profile considerably, but with Stoner Witch the Melvins began to tinker with radio friendly arrangements, played relatively straight for a band with such an ingrained sense of humor. That this album was released on a major label (Atlantic) speaks of the post-Nirvana feeding frenzy of the mid-90s, where hungry corporate execs were keen to snatch up even the direst of grunge’s dregs (hey there, Candlebox and Seven Mary Three). The Melvins remained a singular entity in their unabashed riff worship, and it’s difficult to imagine Sleep, Earth or Sunn O))) gaining future footholds without following the singular trail the Melvins blazed.
VIDEO: The Melvins at Rhythm and Brews, Indio, CA 7/27/94
Listening to Stoner Witch without any historical context, one would wonder how long a band like Melvins would last at Atlantic before being dropped. The answer? Three more years. The Melvins have spent the decades since tinkering and experimenting with their signature black sludge, but Stoner Witch remains perhaps their most accomplished work, a vision quest of thundering guitars and stomach-rumbling drums and bass that remains unrivaled. Where others went vaguely heavy, the Melvins went comically heavier.
Stoner Witch found The Melvins in power-trio mode, Buzzo flanked by the loyal Dale Crover on drums and new recruit Mark Deutrom on bass (replacing Lori ‘Lorax’ Black, who was facing legal and substance abuse issues at the time). Perhaps reflecting this period of flux, Stoner Witch was tracked in a little over two weeks, usually in single takes with minimal overdubs, with mixing and mastering completed in single marathon sessions. The album’s loose and off-the-cuff feel pairs nicely with the material, with its gestures towards Southern rock yarl’ing and typically strange, surrealist lyrics.
“Skweetus”, all echo-soaked drums and proto-Rob Zombie growls, is a brief table setter that makes the album’s manifesto clear: this is a rock album, as dirty and bleak as such albums get. The quiet-loud dynamics of “Queen” melt into the surprisingly-nimble tempo of “Sweet Willy Rollbar”, while “Goose Freight Train” and “Magic Pig Detective” are the weirdo noise freakouts, the acid casualty side quests that keep the album from becoming bogged down in its own muddy, repetitive riffage. “Junebug” is a pure fireworks showcase for the rhythm section, and “At The Stake” is the album’s most harrowing attempt at crawling, dreadful menace, eight minutes of haunting, grinding malice.
Producer Garth Richardson takes a wise no-frills approach to the material, letting Buzzo and friends slam through their works with minimal ornamentation and studio trickery, standing aside and letting them work through demonic changeups and savage breakdowns unimpeded by overthinking. That an album this dark and brooding has been considered as the band’s ‘happiest’ is a wonder in itself.
During their major-label years, the Melvins were as bare-bones as they ever became, stripped down to earth-shaking rhythms and crunching riffs, a machine of unadulterated and violent rot.
It was no wonder Atlantic never knew what to do with them. Later freed of Atlantic’s chains, they’ve continued to chase sonic frontiers beyond their singular defining sound, but looking back from this comfortable, elder-statesmen vantage point, Stoner Witch remains possibly their apex and defining effort, a descent through a blearly flaming hell of sludge that cemented their legacy as perhaps the heaviest band to ooze from grunge’s protoplasm. It’s a reputation cast in glancing back to classic rock roots as well as looking forward to the lengthy stoner-metal fantasias of tomorrow.
With Stoner Witch, Buzzo and company became more than a clever collection influences, but an influence in their own right, with untold followers scribbling notes in the margins, eager to set sail on their own seas of sound.
AUDIO: The Melvins Stoner Witch (Full Album)