WIZARDS OF OZMA: Stewart Voegtlin and Beaver on MELVINS’ heaviest record (from Arthur No. 34)

As originally published in Arthur No. 34 (April 2013)

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WIZARDS OF OZMA
What made MELVINS’ 1992 beercrusher Lysol the most unlikely religious record ever built? STEWART VOEGTLIN pays attention to the men behind the curtain…
Illustration by BEAVER

Discussed:

Melvins
Lysol
Boner Records, 1992

Melvins
Gluey Porch Treatments
Alchemy Records, 1989

Melvins
Ozma
Boner Records, 1987

Melvins
Eggnog
Boner Records, 1991

Earth
Extra-Capsular Extraction
Sub Pop, 1990

Melvins
Joe Preston
Boner Records, 1992

Thrones
Alraune
The Communion Label, 1996

Used to fight flu in early 1900s. Used as douche, disinfectant, “birth-control agent.” Toxic to birds, fish, and aquatic invertebrates. But commonly consumed by alcoholics as alternative to more expensive tipple. Taken off grocer’s shelf. Popped open. Sprayed into its cap. Thrown back. Used and reused because—or in spite of—its overpowering carbolic taste worsened with a burn weaponized and wince inducing. And, finally, used, infamously—but not orally—by Buzz Osborne (guitar, vocals), Joe Preston (bass), and Dale Crover (drums) as title of Melvins’ fourth full-length record, Lysol, released in 1992.

Lysol is Melvins’ biggest record. It’s their heaviest. While being “big” and “heavy,” Lysol inadvertently questions what exactly constitutes “big” and “heavy” records. While being intentionally cryptic, Lysol questions what it means for records to be unintentionally accessible, and why a record’s content must posit a “message” that not only means something, but also purports to uncover some semblance of truth. The dialectic is reluctant. That it’s as “big” and “heavy” as the record itself, and actually does threaten to posit a “message” that masquerades as truth, is an unexpected payoff from a record that satisfies as many aesthetic criteria as it eliminates.

Harold Bloom could’ve been talking about Lysol when he praised the completeness and finality of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The book fulfilled Bloom’s idea of the “ultimate western.” All genre criteria were not only satisfied; they were eliminated. Anything published on its heels was not a western at all, but futility in the form of mechanics, ink, paper. Lysol was released in 1992; the two “heaviest” records released that year other than itself are Black Sabbath’s Dehumanizer and Eyehategod’s In the Name of Suffering. Their sound is distinct. They work within the confines of their carefully cultivated worlds, and thrive in doing so. Lysol’s sound? Also distinct. Also works within its world. But does so in such manner that the construction that defines its world falls, like a ladder kicked away after its ascendant looks down on what they’ve climbed out of, and becomes not meaningless, but too meaningful.

What Melvins accomplish with Lysol, particularly its 11-minute opener, “Hung Bunny,” is a sort of Heavy Metal as religious music. When “Hung Bunny” isn’t stomping inchoate distillations of “God’s silence,” it’s spreading śūnyatā out as endless horizon. When “Hung Bunny” isn’t indifferent about “theophany,” it’s providing the conditions necessary to understand, or receive, the divine in the first place. Not surprisingly, it’s an attentive record. A concentrated record. A ceremonial record. It’s the most unlikely religious record ever built, as its cover tunes (which account for half of the program) easily constitute the band’s bulletproof belief system, while “Hung Bunny,” recreates Tibetan Buddhism’s ritual music, and stillbirths one of the more unfortunate subgenres, “stoner doom,” without even taking a toke.

It’s a risky hyperbole. (Aren’t they all?) Somewhere in a suburban basement, a kid’s pulling tubes, crushing beers, Lysol spraying through ear-wilting wattage. It may not initially present as enigma, even in the midst of buzz, but it will always require interpretation. How that kid understands Lysol may be no different than how orthodox monks understand the Jesus prayer. In a deceptively simple way, the kid and the monk make sense of their lives through external power, with or without what Richard Rorty calls “an ambition of transcendence.” That we struggle, unprovoked, through these self-imposed puzzles, is what binds us, despite the disparity of aesthetics we are geared towards through fate’s random generation. Ultimately we gravitate towards that which lends our lives meaning—even if meaning is undone in its meaninglessness. Realizing the kid’s and the monk’s “road” to sense is the same path carved out by, and because, of the “big” and the “heavy” is the first step out onto the yellow brick.

* * *

Easiest, quickest way to learn what “big” and “heavy” consists in is to “do it.” Melvins did it. They made big, heavy records, long before Lysol. Future Melvins’ bass player Mark Deutrom produced their two biggest, heaviest, earliest records: Ozma (1987), and Gluey Porch Treatments (1989). Deutrom’s production, so simplistic it sounds complex, is unobtrusively brilliant, as its hands-free take leaves room ambience and artistic attack alone to their violent courtship. Results are uncommonly common: with 24 tracks for three instruments and vocals, everything sounds as it should—like itself. While “Grunge” reappropriated the more banal aspects of Zeppelin and Sabbath, Melvins strove intentionally (or not) to resist imitation, instead building a band and music unlike everything that revolved around them in Seattle’s “Emerald City.”

Long before aesthetics provided fodder for semi-good intentioned arguments, myriad other overly perceptive folks recognized inherent patterns, and bound man irrevocably to phenomena. Every thought, action derivative of the world around him. Even internally man was/is mimetic model. Originality was never something cracked like a code. It happened. And that it now happens infrequently can be only spoken of as useful, as art—in all its form—continues ephemerally, a deluge of I without Thou. How is it that Osborne, Preston, and Crover held Lysol up as prayer, as homage, as event? How is it three musicians escaped predestined life plan as mere accumulation of echoes? How is it they became collective sage paid tribute to by lesser folk in the long march towards mass artistic reproduction? Deutrom certainly helped. Without much embellishment, he “allowed” Melvins to show themselves what they already knew. But when the haze of convenience store zen burned off, Melvins only knew they didn’t.

Whereas other bands consciously manufactured “heaviness,” Melvins’ music was symptomatic of its criteria, even as it masterfully submitted it to erasure within any given song’s parameters. The banal, blues-based music, thickened by overdriven guitars and castle walls of amps, was modified with prankish disregard for its form. Early “single” “Oven,” from Gluey Porch Treatments, is 1:29 of breakdowns, its beginning same as its midsection, its conclusion. Crover’s recycled beat is marching band jive, trucker speed jittered, locking jaws after every breath. Osbourne’s chords ring out and then vanish completely, relegated to the stupid static squiggle that sounds when one plugs in. When it all comes together, Osbourne paints randomness over Crover’s wind-knocking accents: “Pez are gonna let it slide gonna burn what cotton decides are apelee / My main oven drive he took from under what’s come over me.” “Just like witches at black masses” it ain’t.

When Melvins wasn’t shaving flesh from the form, it was adding it—in sheer tonnage. “Charmicarmicat,” from the Eggnog EP (1991), is 12:51 of climax denial. Its Seussian title fulfills its promise: this is anapestic tetrameter as water torture. Osborne’s lexicon is again emptied into the song’s baggy form with nary a trace of intention. Words “soul” and “steam” flirt with Greek notion of “psuche” as “breath” and dissolve through incoherent commands: “Wash away / Wish away.” It’s tempting to draw a big red circle around “soul” and “psuche” and “breath” and the first four seconds of “Hung Bunny,” which ostensibly feature Osborne’s breath being “washed away” by an avalanche of overdubbed guitar. Like the third line of “Charmicarmicat,” “Hung Bunny” is the “more [Osbourne has] craved for,” the “endless stream”—transliteration of the Hessean river of eternal totality.

“Oven” and “Charmicarmicat” are the token of “what it is to be heavy” in Melvins’ world. These songs do not “try to be x;” they “are x.” The music is presented, like a cold or disease, rather than adhering to the nuts and bolts of the genre it is purportedly part of. It is a state altered by abnormality rather than a state assumed, or mimicked by norms. Yet it follows naturally instead of artificially. “Big” and “heavy” were just tools in a box. Melvins were never a “handy” band. They worked with readymades, not materials. Music wasn’t “made;” it just “was.” There was no “ad hoc.” No “template.”

Only recorded analogue predating Melvins’ sound is the one minute, 58-second Van Halen instrumental, “Sunday Afternoon in the Park,” from Fair Warning (1981). It’s a classic Edward Van Halen bit, frankensteined together out of an overdriven child’s synthesizer, and his brother, Alex, imitating John Bonham’s heart rate post four bottles of vodka on a drum kit that must’ve been recorded in a cavernous high school gymnasium. The result’s a tune as off-putting as it is hermetic—Melvins’ essence—shrink-wrapped and sent out into a world oblivious to its power.

Whether Osborne or Crover heard “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” or not is anyone’s guess. Sure, it sounds like Crover on the kit. It sounds like something goofy and unsettling they’d easily pull off. But that would mean Melvins’ aesthetic was premeditated, when their music’s truly the core’s stylistic perfection married tempestuously. A more likely scenario is Osbourne and Crover let their band be merely out of ashcan nihilism bandied by norm-terrorists, Pussy Galore and Flipper. Les Paul, strings slung from its neck like loose laundry lines, configured with battery reconfigured: floor tom became mounted tom; snare not a snap but a slag at six feet deep; metal pulled from scrapyards set high for the striking. Bass a 50-foot sledge swung with the parting of every breath. Melvins had worked through two other bass players—Matt Lukin (credited as one of Melvins’ founding members), and Shirley Temple’s daughter, Lori “Lorax” Black—before indoctrinating the mysterious Joe Preston into the fold. And that’s when Oz got its Wizard.

* * *

Joe Preston’s addition to the Osborne/Crover core provoked little fanfare. What media note exists, however, characterizes Preston’s incorporation as “poaching,” as the band he played with prior to Melvins was Dylan Carlson’s Earth. That band’s first EP, Extra-Capsular Extraction, released in 1990, is an absurdist anomaly that would’ve come off as a creepy joke if it weren’t some hell-bent attempt at defining “snuff rock.” Carlson, who has long since reconfigured Earth as a sort of Bill Frisell-ian neo-gospel troupe, then worked from a self-imposed, ultra-limited, palette: play blunted facsimiles of Slayer riffs slowed to less than a quarter of the speed they’re normally delivered at; get Preston to add bass backbone, and minimal drum-programming; repeat riff in maddeningly torturous cycle until it doesn’t sound static, but falls completely apart.

Extra-Capsular Extraction is the kind of record that “feels” moldy. Were you to tell me it was composed, played, and recorded in 72 straight hours over bad coffee, worse grass, and gas station sandwiches and chips, I’d bank it. It’s also one of the more “readymade” EPs ever created, even as it mirrors nothing, draws from well-known and esoteric music, and is delivered in a subhuman, neo-existentialist manner than makes the Deer Hunter’s Russian Roulette scene seem like premise for a Nickelodeon pilot. Its materials are incongruous. Its mechanics practically banal. Its effect mesmerizing. And if you start to get rhetorical; if you want to know “why” it’s this or that way, you have to divert from Carlson and search for a ghostwriter.

Doesn’t require calculus. Preston’s role in Earth, especially considering what transpired in his wake, can’t be minimized. Carlson’s mantra regarding any initial template was to make “bad punk rock” with Earth, but at the time he was allegedly immersed in American Minimalists Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, plus the usual diet of Sabbath, Deep Purple, Slayer. Carlson’s early guitar playing is rudimentary, living and dying with overdriven amplification and a decay that transpires over several million units of cosmic time. Meshed with Preston’s approach, the duo likens itself to an El Camino disintegrating in doe estrus over the next 10,000 years.

The Preston “approach” is the skeleton key: then—and now. It is/was martial. It is/was slow, it is/was heavier, heaviest. It straddled strange lines demarcating intense solitude, hopeless human insignificance, incongruity, pataphysics. It was Godflesh’s S/T, Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” Ravel’s “Bolero,” John Carpenter’s scores, Andy Kaufman’s boneheaded ideas. It’s been too easy to attribute Earth’s early immensity to Carlson, especially with the convenient nods to Johnny One Notes. But then there’s Exhibit A: Preston’s stubborn 1992 self-titled solo EP. Released in 1992 under the Melvins’ banner in homage to Kiss’ four simultaneously released “solo” records in 1978, each Melvins members’ EP features their pubescent faces on the covers, and poster and LP inside. Their content, like Kiss’, differed in quality and presentation, but Osborne’s and Crover’s contributions sound weirdly vanilla in comparison to Preston’s.

Like a struggling stutterer, Preston blurts out his quickies, “The Eagle Has Landed,” and “Bricklebit” (which pairs dialogue from Apocalypse Now’s intel briefing with the bass backbone/minimal drum-programming of Earth’s Extra-Capsular Extraction), but lingers infinitely on “Hands First Flower,” the chicken-or-the-egg moment for Earth and Melvins composition alike. Who’s the puppet? Who’s the puppeteer? Maybe there were never any strings to begin with. From the sound of it, Preston’s in up to his elbows, working the leviathan as he always has: slowest, heaviest, hopelessness. That some skinny-jeaned mope with a Les Paul and Sunn amp manages “Doom Metal” designation shows how few have truly heard “Hands First Flower.” If there ever were a soundtrack to watching your dad get his teeth kicked in outside some podunk honky tonk, this is it. At one second shy of 23 minutes it is two of Lysol’s “Hung Bunny,” and dwarfs even “Charmicarmicat” in its staying power.

Preston’s Alraune (1996), recorded under the Thrones’ moniker, shows how much/little of Earth’s formative years he owned. Alraune’s big, heavy pieces—”Ursa Minor” and “Mercuric”—are likely what Earth 2 would’ve been had Preston not moved on to Melvins. Unquantifiable misery as music. Same bass backbone, same minimal drum-programming. There’s a crescendo set down like a flare on a desert highway. There’s overlapping samples of hysterical laughter. There’s repeating riffs in maddeningly torturous cycle until it doesn’t sound static, but falls completely apart.

Lysol’s “Roman Bird Dog,” which serves as catharsis for the interminable build-up of “Hung Bunny,” isn’t much different from an early Earth piece, or anything on Preston’s solo Melvins outing, or Alraune. Crover sounds like a machine. Drops kick, crashes tom, cracks snare, cymbals. Preston’s bass roars through the tune, like a sweet spot in a log burning at a higher rate until it explodes, sending embers everywhere.

It’s an odd tune. Doesn’t sound wholly different from “Hung Bunny,” but it does sound thicker—if that’s possible—and it does sound more psychedelic—if that’s possible. Osborne’s voice, already maniacal, sounds flanged out, quivering, floating, falling, at once an ocean liner’s anchor dropped at deepest sea, and weightless as one’s soul. The words he sings, also worth noting, as they’re coherent, intelligible even, draw fortunate connection with the record’s title. “Lysol to get me high / Two shots dispel my fear / Baby everything seems so small / And I to be,” Osbourne admits, everyone’s favorite big-haired lug at AA meetings. There’s talk of woman walking “as animal,” narrator walking “like man.” There’s greater divide in sleep preferences, as she “wants a well-worn bed,” and narrator one-ups his lady friend, as he “can be one,” his “one would a little world.” It’s a perfect collision here for Preston, Osborne, and Crover. It’s a startling way to begin a record that continues to ascend even within the vehicle of three cover tunes—one Flipper, two Alice Cooper. But when it’s over and done, with Osbourne’s unaccompanied voice singing what could or could not be nonsense, it’s rather coincidental that they’d never engage in as much god-bothering as they did here again.

Only there are no coincidences. Melvins’ core was just that, but with Preston the band became something neither here nor there, but everywhere. Melvins became conscious of itself in its “hearers” only. It was no longer a band. It was a thing. The slowest, heaviest, and biggest thing that was everywhere at once. A thing that “was” or “is” depending on what the meanings of “was” or “is” were or are. Here the token of “what it is to be heavy” in the Melvins’ world was/is defined by its lack of underlying truth, enigma, or need for “transcendence.” The music Osborne and Crover made with Preston, especially Lysol, is made terrible by its truth attempting to make sense of its “hearers.” Welcome to the queer experience of actively passive listening, where the music you’ve tuned into is actually tuned into you. It sounds invasive because it is. It sounds terrific—in its true sense—because it is. And it sounds hyperbolic, and framed as theophany—because it is.

* * *

Lysol’s first tune, “Hung Bunny,” serves opening prayer. It hews energy cartoonish in elasticity, primordial in form. Here Osborne, Crover, and Preston erect Om shared by Barnett Newman, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Arthur Clarke’s monolith. It’s electric music that sounds prehistoric. It could’ve been made pre-amplification by the din of hominids chattering away the senselessness of making sense. It’s eternally beginning, and over far too quickly. Like Clarke’s monolith, “Hung Bunny,” takes a form that’s more a presence. Commanding even in absence. Incapable of being felt, pointed out, discussed, known. Accessing it requires craft, cunning. So Osborne does what desert-wandering mystics have done for millennia: he doesn’t call to it, but beyond it. Wordless utterance chases theonym. And it rises and swells like the warbling of Tibetan dungchen over Himalaya.

Osborne’s call isn’t torch song. It’s not an alarm triggered to awaken a sleeping god. It’s a statement—to a something. It’s a declaration to—and towards—a something. But Osbourne’s call isn’t delivered linearly—“from x to y.” It’s a message in a bottle broken over his own head. It’s perplex at “using” the word, “God,” as its use comes with neither experience nor referent. Abrahamic traditions opine God isn’t only nameless, but beyond naming. The way to name the nameless is with a wordless word: the “transcendent” through negation. A something from a nothing. That its vehicle is the recourse of dog, coyote, or wolf is only appropriate.

Osborne’s howl is built neither from anger nor sorrow, but candid confession: the infinite is only known to itself. It is incomprehensible, imaginary, meaning- and non-meaningful. Osborne’s howl is without direction, sent without means of address, but purposed in meaning and significance in the most fundamental sense: it is an announcement of omnipotence through unknowingness. I am, and exist by and for myself. And I am ongoing, forever.

This howl is a sort of glossolalia in that it’s incomprehensible, imaginary, meaning- and non-meaningful. In fact, this isn’t anything new. Osbourne’s been writing incomprehensible, non-meaningful lyrics for songs since the band began. Lysol’s conclusion, “With Teeth,” is a microcosm of Osbourne’s imaginary well he draws from, where sign and signifier are free of relation and meaning hovers confusedly overhead, like a cloud threatening rain it can’t or won’t produce. Beyond the usual schema is utilization of non-sequitur, and couplets of Seussian-like speech that, prima facie, appear to be genuinely “authentic”—it’s just that their reader lacks experience of their usage, and the world where their usage is regularly experienced.

The last two lines of “With Teeth:” “Like siz the well known water / Like siz the well known war,” take a substance we all have experience of, “water,” and hobble that experience by comparing it to, “siz,” an unknown substance, much less grammatical construction. “Siz” is, in fact, a “real” word. It’s the Crimean Tartar personal pronoun, “you,” but whether or not Osbourne knows this, speaks Crimean Tartar, or uses “With Teeth” to deploy the first leg of an incomplete comparative statement isn’t of significance. What’s significant, however, is Osbourne’s ability to disinfect music of the conventional bacteria it’s built on. “With Teeth” isn’t narrative. Its only ostensible subject is “you,” as “you” or “you’ve” is used three times—five if you’re willing to count “siz.” If anything transpires it’s that “I” tells “you” you’ve “got the part that’s living now,” a part that’s a “tiny bit nasty,” yet “it’s a part now just the same.”

We understand what it means to be “living,” what it means to be “nasty,” what it means when two things are “just the same,” namely, identical. But taken together they are unfamiliar. They make just enough sense to create the illusion of meaning, threatening denouement that can’t or won’t transpire. Even if there’s solace found in the simplicity of the I/you construct, the non-sequitur: “Sometimes when the heart beats wide / You can take it on the doves,” works as traditional Osbornean booby-trap. Like the Chinese Finger-Trap, struggling only makes the situation worse. Perhaps the meaning is there is none. Just forget “siz” is also a mineral water bottler in Karachi. It’ll make matters worse. “Like siz the well known water / Like siz the well known war,” the imaginary, incomprehensible jingle for a real water from a real place in a real world. It threatens connection, meaning, sign, and referent, but ultimately can’t—or won’t produce, leaving anyone attempting engagement chasing grammatical ghost.

* * *

Osborne doesn’t want people pouring over Melvins’ lyric sheets trying to unpack something that was never compartmentalized in the first place. By writing lyrics that aren’t lyrics, Osborne subverts the idea songs must “mean” something, that they’re built solely to convey a message, even if that message is truthfully about Pakistani mineral water. The subtext here, another challenge posed to traditional rock criteria, is maybe a message-less song actually means more, in that it simulates a vessel, and allows those that interact with it to fill it with any meaning they see fit. Osborne shows us the “senselessness of making sense” is worth believing in, especially when it’s couched in an attentive, concentrated, and ceremonial record like Lysol.

Maybe it could’ve been called anything. Could’ve been called “Jif,” or “Brillo,” or “Haffenreffer.” In retrospect, Boner Records probably wished the band had called it something that wasn’t a registered trademark—as Lysol was. After the record company was denied permission to use the product name by Reckitt Benckiser Corporation, who owns the Lysol brand, Boner and the band had to conceal the record’s original title with black tape on LP jackets and CD booklets, and with black ink on CD spines. Maybe that made it more mystical. Concealing it, negating it, only supercharged it, made it more there, even when it was forbidden to be.

Lysol was only a placeholder. Other than a single mention in “Roman Bird Dog,” it had no connection, no logical invite. And Osborne, who’s militantly fond of couching his music and its schema under the subhead: “activity that serves no meaning,” would likely appreciate it if everyone framed the record and its title that way. Doesn’t mean anything. It’s just nonsense. Whatever these thoughts or feelings I think and feel vis-a-vis Lysol are invalid. And that would mean something, if only Melvins hadn’t spent a career subverting the paradigm Heavy Metal posits as a way to “clean” the music of its criteria. So name your biggest, heaviest record after a disinfectant millions of people know and use. It’s got a logo and a smell you can see and sniff in your mind. It’s present even when absent, just like Melvins’ music of the same name. Turn it on. Try and deny its “hereness.”

When Osborne’s howl takes flight in “Hung Bunny,” he’s saying, “I’m here” without a shred of dishonesty. “I’m here.” Ongoing and forever. It’s a proposition that doesn’t so much as whisper for proof. It bongs a priori’s bell. It requires no leap, no extension. There’s no hand wringing over meaning, and interpretation of that meaning. There’s no wondering whether Osborne knows Crimean Tartar, or Siz is a Pakistani bottler of mineral water. No need for prior experience. Just as “Hung Bunny” is taken without examination or science, so is the totality of Lysol. When Crover shows up to the party—nearly eight minutes in—it’s a jarring call to prayer, permutations of the great thud like a tree-bearded monk with semantron. Biggest. Heaviest. Ceremonial.

Punchline present after all the investigation is the “message” was there without the content. There’s Osborne in Cyrus Edwin Dallin’s role of “Appeal to the Great Spirit,” the painting used for Lysol’s cover of the Native American on horseback, sun falling upon him, arms akimbo in supplication. But Osborne’s hands are entwined, index fingers extended, triangulated. Here is the church. Here is the steeple. But there’s no inclosure here. There’s no ceiling. The truth here is unexpected, and satisfactory. It’s a world within the world from where sense is made of senselessness. A living church powered by the ambition of transcendence, whose doors are always already parted. Walk beyond them. And see all the people.


Stewart Voegtlin is a writer and editor of America’s only real Heavy Metal magazine, Chips & Beer. His work has appeared in such disparate publications as The Oxford American, Wire, and The Atomic Elbow, a wrestling zine. He lives in Georgia with Ms. Voegtlin and Master Voegtlin.

Beaver is resident artist of Chips & Beer Heavy Metal magazine. His cover art for the Bone Sickness Alone in the Grave LP will be released in March on the 20 Buck Spin label. He works next to a purportedly authentic death mask of Peter Lorre outside of Washington, DC.

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