Melvins: At The Stake – Atlantic Recordings 1993-1995
3 CD box set
Out June 30 2023
When Nevermind burst out of nowhere to sell millions of CDs to angry suburban youths it blindsided record companies who were then on a desperate hunt to sign the new Nirvana. Melvins were one of the bands signed and this box collects their three major label records…
It has ever thus with the money men when a new movement starts, but like punk before it the scramble to sign a similar act that might flog a few records usually results in signing bands who were crap, or in the case of Melvins not really a grunge act. To be honest grunge was always a bit of a fraud as a movement, looking back it was never really much more than Nirvana who had a one-off sound and vision. If you want to dig a bit deeper it was pioneers like Husker Du and Black Flag who were more the godfathers of grunge as they melded power and – more critically – melody.
In fairness to Melvins they were stalwarts of the Pacific North West rock/metal scene and vocalist/guitarist Buzz Osborne famously introduced Kurt Cobain and Kris Noveselic to Dave Grohl. So with A and Rs crawling all over Seattle it was little wonder Melvins joined other ‘grunge’ acts like Screaming Trees and Soundgarden in securing a major deal.
In 1993 they released Houdini as their first record for Atlantic, and it was partly produced by their old mate Kurt Cobain, but whoever signed them was probably a bit shocked when the tapes came back. This is a pretty decent album, but it’s no Nevermind, and even Nirvana didn’t manage that trick twice. Instead, their fourth album is a mix of sort of grunge, stoner rock and some interesting if flawed experimentation.
Hooch was released as a single starting off a bit Metallica before trying to find Cobain‘s sound, and the bluesy Lizzy, with its big vocal was probably a better bet as a hit. Honey Bucket is a wall of pop and Set Me Straight is powerpop like late Husker Du, but the squalling feedback Teet has not aged well. The clanging, eerie percussion of Pearl Bomb has more than a hint of the wilfulness of Metal Machine Music, which probably send the wannabe suburban rebels running for cover.
All in all a decent album, but anyone at the label banking on another squillion seller would have been left disappointed. One of the three bonus tracks is a live version of It’s Shoved, showing how good live act they were after years plugging away on the Pacific North West scene.
The second Atlantic record, Stoner Queen, has been cited as the greatest grunge album ever but that is utter tosh. It’s the best of the trio of major label records as perhaps one of the suits had a word. Despite the annoying cowbells Queen is a decent rock anthem with Osborne’s voice higher in the mix, while Revolve is on the cusp of rock and grunge, but never really settles on one or the other, and there’s this take, an edited version and the demo so you can trace its evolution as a song. Goose Freight Train is probably the closest they get to Nirvana’s blend of pop and angst, although the spacey blues of Shevil is a contender. Magic Pig Detective’s almost Hawkwind space rock feels like them sticking up the middle finger to the suits, and might have been a Pigs x7 outtake.
Sadly Stag, their last album for Atlantic, feels like both band and label have given up accepting that they just weren’t capable of producing Nevermind 2. It’s always slightly disingenuous moaning that a band is trying to be too experimental, but listless instrumentals like Hide, or the tiresome Yacob’s Lab are just dull. Bar-X-The Rocking M is cock rock and Bertha is bog standard rock. The extras include a decent version of Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive, so It’s not all terrible, but does feel it was right for both parties to part company.
All the bands that were foolishly signed to be the new Nirvana were always on a hiding to nothing as Cobain was a generational talent who shone brightly for a short time. Melvins might not have been a good fit for a major label, but their three albums here are always interesting, and often tantalisingly near the impossible benchmark they were set by the execs.
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Words by Paul Clarke, you can see his author profile here.
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