WIZARDS OF OZMA: Stewart Voegtlin and Beaver on MELVINS’ heaviest record (Arthur, 2013)

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

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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


Boner Records, 1992

Gluey Porch Treatments
Alchemy Records, 1989

Boner Records, 1987

Boner Records, 1991

Extra-Capsular Extraction
Sub Pop, 1990

Joe Preston
Boner Records, 1992

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.

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Originally published in Arthur No. 35 (Aug 2013)…

Artwork by BEAVER. Top: ASTRAL PLANE (L to R): Pharoah Sanders, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, John Coltrane, Donald Garrett, McCoy Tyner. Bottom: MATERIAL PLANE (L to R): Sanders, Garrison, Garrett, Jones, Tyner, Coltrane.


DISCOGRAPHY, 1965-1967
A Love Supreme Recorded Dec ‘64/released ‘65
The John Coltrane Quartet Plays Recorded Feb 65/May 65/March 65 released ’65
Transition Recorded May/June ‘65 released ‘70
Kulu Sé Mama (+Sanders, Garrett, Butler, Lewis) Recorded June 10-16/65 released ‘67
Ascension Recorded June 28/65 released ‘66
Sun Ship Recorded August ‘65 released ‘71
First Meditations Recorded Sept 2/65 released ‘77
Live in Seattle (+Sanders; Garrett) Recorded Sept 30/65/released ‘71
Om (+Sanders; Brazil) Recorded October ‘65 /released 68
Meditations (+Sanders; Ali) Recorded Nov 65/released 66
Interstellar Space Recorded Feb. ‘67/released ‘74
Expression (Sanders, Ali, Alice Coltrane) Recorded Feb. ‘67 & March ‘67/released ‘67

Forty-eight years ago the classic John Coltrane Quartet—along with tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and multi-instrumentalist Don Garrett—played a gig at a small Seattle club called the Penthouse. The show—130 minutes, professionally recorded, released later as Live in Seattle—came three months after the release of Coltrane’s monumental Ascension, two months before the leader’s penultimate farewell, Meditations. Standards and originals are played. Ponderous intros are atomized by ecstatic solos. Notes dissolve into noise. Noise dissolves into pure sound. Themes struggle within a framework so volatile it shares more likeness with a riot than music. Whether you choose to believe rumors the players gobbled up LSD before hitting the stage doesn’t change opinion turned fact: this quartet could summon chaos like no other. That night in Seattle, Coltrane & Co. ground away at reality and its tyranny of time until any semblance of form surrendered to the void.

Live in Seattle didn’t arrive at a pivotal moment. It was the pivotal moment. Coltrane had undergone a sort of gale force ideation; let himself go to creativity. He behaved more like a speedfreak archivist at the time than leader of the world’s most cataclysmic quartet. Recorded incessantly. In studio. Remotely. Pecked away at graphic scores. Scribbled down ideas. Gave sparse but impassioned instruction to players en route to studio or gig, establishing structure in the moment, assembling by chance, intuition, power. Live in Seattle was the final push towards the symbolic rebirth Coltrane had begun working towards with A Love Supreme in 1964. It’s Coltrane himself in an almost monastic light, striving for purity, elation, elegance, exaltation. His breath and its vehicle not of this earth, but of something we know not what. A Love Supreme is the undeniably practiced and ceremonial unification of the quartet. Live in Seattle its mindful and unceremonious dissolution. It’s the sound of the classic quartet coming completely apart at its core.

That night in Seattle the rhythm section either bashed away in protest, or stood agitatedly indifferent to Coltrane and Sanders, their horns a screaming phoenix struggling to get off ground with the weight of the universe in its talons. Bassist Jimmy Garrison, pianist McCoy Tyner, and drummer Elvin Jones surely tear through the set. But only Garrison sounds truly sympathetic, willfully adapting to Coltrane’s vision still in transition, shelving simple bass walks in lieu of strumming, plucking, coloring what sounds at times like blood ritual with strange flamenco and orchestral figures. Tyner alternately stomps and sprints up the keys, pointlessly competing with Jones who switches between raucous swing and athletic white noise. Ingredients are there. Forces in opposition. Each player pulling the music into a place he’s more comfortable with. Had it been a rock band it would’ve been salted with operatic whining and ego-oriented arguments that served no true end. All the quartet was doing was shaping its new sound. Crafting aesthetic. Loudly becoming. Here, within Live in Seattle, lies the set of directions for that sound, more cosmogony than loose aggregate of aped trope.

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