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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ARTHUR BEST OF 2007 LISTS No. 5: John Coulthart


1) 2007 was The Year of Cormac McCarthy. The Road won a Pulitzer, the Coens made a film of No Country for Old Men and the man himself talked to Oprah in his first, and possibly last, TV appearance.

2) Gigs: Machinefabriek in Manchester and Boredoms in Manchester. Two events that were polar opposites but equally electrifying.

3) Book of the year: The Black Dossier by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill. A wonderful smorgasbord of pastiche combining comics, prose, a Shakespearean play, a free pair of 3D glasses and more obscure British cultural reference than you can shake a loaded blunderbuss at.

Honourable mention to The BUTT Book, the first 16 issues of BUTT magazine in one fat volume.

4) Album of the year: Ekvílibríum by Valgeir Sigurðsson. A tremendous debut by the Icelandic producer with guest appearances by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Dawn McCarthy and others.

Honourable mention to Raising Sand by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss.

5) CD reissues: An Electric Storm by White Noise and The Complete On The Corner Sessions by Miles Davis.

6) DVD releases: A great year for cinematic work which had been difficult or impossible to see suddenly becoming available for all. Among the highlights: Jordan Belson, Jodorowsky’s major works, Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle, Tim Buckley’s TV appearances, Jan Svankmajer shorts, Lindsay Anderson’s If…, Cammell & Roeg’s Performance and three films by Derek Jarman.

7) Work: The Mindscape of Alan Moore. DeZ Vylenz’s documentary finally made it onto DVD, packaged and designed by yours truly.

8. Films: Hollywood’s products continued to be barely worth following but I did enjoy Perfume (a successful adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s novel), Zodiac (David Fincher getting serious at last) and it was good to see new work from David Lynch. Film of the year for me (although it’s actually from late-2006) was John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, a funny and joyful drama which managed to show real people–gay, straight or otherwise–having real sex and enjoying it for once. Mitchell said he wanted his film to serve as “a small act of resistance against Bush and the America we live in”; it’s that and a whole lot more.

9) In 2007 I finally managed to see some cinematic obscurities I’d waited decades to watch again. The peerless Ubuweb turned up a copy of Impressions de la Haute Mongolie, a bizarre quasi-documentary collaboration between José Montes-Baquer and Salvador Dalí from 1975 concerning a quest for giant hallucinogenic mushrooms in Upper Mongolia. Then there was Images, Robert Altman’s 1972 psychodrama (made between McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye) which had been out of circulation for years, and David Rudkin’s TV adaptation of The Ash Tree by MR James, also from 1975, and still as creepy as I remembered it.

10) The Arthur resurrection. Because you can’t keep a good magazine down.

John Coulthart is a Manchester-based artist, designer, archivist, historian, writer and blogger. His work has appeared in Arthur countless times.