July 15th, 1996, Melvins released their eighth studio album, Stag, through Atlantic Records. Stag was the third and final Melvins album for major label Atlantic Records, which saw a musically fruitful run of releases beginning with Houdini in 1993, followed by Stoner Witch in 1994, and Stag in 1996. Of the three, Stag easily wins the prize for being the weird bastard of the bunch.
It’s pretty staggering that a major, mainstream record label like Atlantic Records would release an album like this. But for a short window in the early to mid-’90s, most major labels didn’t know what was happening in popular culture and would release anything as a result. So, the Melvins were left to their own devices to stretch the boundaries as they saw fit. And stretch they did.
Stag is jaw-dropping in its depth and scope. It cascades through genres, soundscapes, instrumentation and styles like a fox rips through a hen house. Sludge and doom metal crash against trumpets, trombones, organs and pianos. Pretty pop ditty’s fight for space alongside nihilistic grunge workouts, disembodied soundscapes, ambient beauty, delta blues and ’70s rock stompers seamlessly merge with the avant-garde. It’s an exhilarating mix of outsider music. It invites the listener to leave their preconceived, blinkered views of genre at the door and come along for the ride. It also displays the truly remarkable talents of King Buzzo, Dale Crover and Mark Deutrom.
Recorded in early 1996, the album was mostly produced by the band with GGGarth Richardson and Joe Baressi and Sound City Studios, A&M Studios and various other locations. Alex Newport of the legendary Fudge Tunnel produces one song, as does Chris Kozlowski. There’s a sense here that the band may well have known their time as a major label commodity was coming to an end before they entered the studio to record Stag, and the result was them pushing their own boundaries to see what they could get away with.
Frontman King Buzzo said he expected the band to be dropped by Atlantic after its first major-label album (Houdini), and he’s still surprised they were allowed to make two more. “We thought Atlantic would take one album from us, hate it and be done,” he explained. “But they did three, which is still surprising to us. People told us they were surprised, but trust me, no one was more surprised than us.”
He added that they “did not pursue major labels; they pursued us. Many bands from that ’90s era begged labels to help them sound commercial and sell records. That was never us. Atlantic left us alone; I don’t know why, but fuck, we delivered. I’d sign on for those terms again in a heartbeat. We charted our course, and we’ve followed it from the very beginning.”
Why Atlantic Records didn’t interfere with the Melvins approach is debatable; as mentioned, labels at that time seemed to be at sea as to what was “hip,” so in some cases, they stayed away, hoping their little oddity would be the next Nirvana. Melvins came with some serious clout; they were the granddaddies, the standard bearers, the originators of the Pacific Northwest sound. They were referenced as influences by just about everyone at that time. Atlantic Records knew not to mess with that. And maybe it was that they couldn’t find a snot-nosed A&R guy with big enough balls to drive down to the studio and tell King Buzzo and Dale Crover that he doesn’t hear a hit..!! Would you..?
The album opens with the sound of a strummed sitar before the distant hum of feedback explodes into an unmercifully powerful riff. “The Bit” is the sound of the Melvins on top form. It’s a formidable start. The groove and vitriol of the song is exhilarating. But one suspects it’s designed to lull the listener into a false sense of security. “Hide” follows, and we’re instantly transported. It’s a gorgeous 48-second interlude of spacious, cinematic beauty.
This leads us to “Bar X – The Rocking M” with its chugging, palm-muted riffs, trumpets, organ and occasional turntable scratching. As with many songs and interludes on Stag, after your initial raised eyebrow has relaxed and with subsequent listens under your belt, the merits of a piece like “Bar X – The Rocking M” become apparent. “Yacob’s Lad” follows another eerie, suspense-filled interlude.
“The Bloat” opens with Dale Crover’s slow groove. A slow, elongated set of slide guitar riffs enters (played by bassist Mark Deutrom), gliding across the fretboard as if dragging the notes through black treacle. Deutrom’s bass is melodic and airy, giving the song opening half a heavy soothing sway before it changes course as Buzz sings over a bass riff and some oddball percussion.
“Tipping The Lion” is a trippy ride into a hushed verse with funky, envelope-filtered, clean guitars and tenacious percussion. They up the ante for the chorus but never unleash the walls of distortion, instead keeping the tones clean. The band would explore this approach on later albums like “The Bootlicker” and “A Walk With Love & Death.”
“Black Book” sticks out like a proud thumb. It’s a brilliantly sweet pop song with an acoustic guitar strumming major chords. It glides through gorgeous transitions with gentle singing. Its outro dons a space suit and glides out into the atmosphere. It’s a unique song in the Melvins canon. From the sublime to the twistedly malevolent. “Goggles” is a caustic, dark, sludge-fest. Co-produced by Alex Newport of the criminally overlooked Fudge Tunnel. Its unsettling whispered/spoken vocals give way to guttural, vicious roars.
“Soup” is an instrumental interval worthy of a place on a John Carpenter soundtrack and is followed by “Buck Owens.” Named after the country music legend but in no way resembling “The Bakersfield Sound”, Owens spearheaded in the 1950s. Instead, it’s a propulsive rager, opening with sliding diminished fifths (the devil’s chord) and transitioning into a stabbing, muted guitar groove backed by Dale Crovers’ inventive, powerhouse drumming. Essential Melvins.
“Sterilized” is a twisted fever dream; droning sounds roll like dark waters below shards of jutting percussion while poisonous, languid vocals wash over the din. As uninviting as that may sound, it’s oddly compulsive and entices you back for more. “Lacrimosa” is yet another disembodied nightmare. It is a horror soundtrack with jump scares from Dale Crover pounding single beats of drums and cymbals. Mark Deutrom’s two-note, plodding bass keeps time beneath as odd drones and what sounds like accordions bubble up. Buzz’s voice sounds like he’s wading through molasses, drowsy, confused and lost.
“Skin Horse” drags us out of the stupor and back to more “conventional” fare. It’s a straightforward song (by Melvins standards) that harkens back to 70s rock, with some outstanding drumming from Crover. But just as we settle into the easy chair with the reprieve, the song fades into an ambient soundscape only to continue with what sounds like the Melvins do Alvin and the Chipmunks.
“Captain Pungent” is a percussive, start-stop hammer. Again, Crover outdoes himself with some incredible drumming. “Berthas” is a brilliant romp. Its verse resembles a psychobilly stomp, and its chorus is straight out of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal playbook. The final track, “Cottonmouth”, is a delta blues stomp, complete with train sounds, resonator slide guitar and tongues firmly in cheek.
With “Stag”, the Melvins let loose. It’s the musical equivalent of downing a bucket full of psychedelics, eating your way through a field of magic mushrooms and washing it down with a bottle of Absinthe while on your way to a rock concert. It’s a polarizing album, for sure. But it’s also an incredible journey. Its undeniable brilliance unfolds on repeated listens. No one sounds like this, and anyone attempting to would surely fail.
Idiosyncratic, quirky, eccentric, unrepentant, distinctive, masterly, gifted, (the) Melvins are all these things. They rock like beasts, scare you senseless, make you laugh and calm you. Stag is all the Melvins attributes multiplied, magnified and shot through a canon.