It’s hard to write about the Melvins without mentioning just how many odd detours the band has taken over a career. But that’s just what the group does, adding new members, new drummers, fielding different lineups at the same time and releasing music endlessly while staying on the road every year. Over what has stretched to a 30-plus year career, Melvins frontman and principal songwriter Buzz Osborne has touched on more musical genres and more sounds with his main project than most songwriters do in an entire career. So of course an acoustic solo LP felt more than a little inevitable, and that’s exactly what he delivered on This Machine Kills Artists.
This is a straight-up all-acoustic guitar experience, with no additional instruments or percussion to speak of, nothing but a harshly-strummed six-string and Osborne’s voice. The pre-release press for the album even mentioned that these songs are made to be played live, and it does sound much like a live experience, involving nothing but the listener and the performer – one person madly strumming on an instrument and howling into a microphone. Occasionally, the vocals will pass through a filter or two, maybe a second guitar part will pop up in one of the audio channels, but there are no massive string sections, sappy ballads, or anything that sounds even remotely foreign to fans of the Melvins. Buzzo is an excellent live performer with decades of experience, so the intended-to-be-played-live feel of these songs comse across almost effortlessly. The aggressive, up-tempo nature of the tunes makes the collection more invigorating than your average unplugged record, and keeps things interesting longer than most one-instrument/one-concept LPs manage.
The easiest way to describe the these songs would be: Melvins tunes that have been stripped of everything but the riffs and lyrics. Osborne’s voice resembles something close to a lone, demented animal howling deep in the woods somewhere out of the listener’s sight. All of the vocals are mixed just ever so slightly underneath the guitar strumming, so that all of the various riffs and hooks take precedence over the singing. Buzz plays the guitar as if he were trying to make up for the lack of an amplifier, shredding the strings to death with his pick. The immediacy of the record is helped by the fact that these are all short songs – only four of them clock in at over three minutes, and only one runs for over four.
Dark Brown Teeth opens the album with a perfect example of what to expect from the rest of the disc and all of its biggest strengths, featuring one of the album’s tightest riffs and Buzzo’s echoing voice just behind it. Laid Back Walking sounds especially like a metal tune stripped down to the bare essential (or perhaps even less), with its harsh intro and the quick melody that precedes every verse. New River features an almost uplifting melody, one that seems to reflect a bit of the classic rock influence that has run more and more through the Melvins’ work over the last decade or so. When The Vulgar Joke‘s tense opening line begins, it’s clear that the LP isn’t going to run out of interesting ideas any time soon.
Make no mistake about This Machine Kills Artists: it’s an acoustic record that focus on guitar riffs first. Maybe the album wears down a little in the final third or so, when the reliance on a single instrument starts to fatigue the listener just a bit, but that shouldn’t diminish any of the individual songs, which are all top-notch recordings that deserve a listen. Over the last decade or so the Melvins’ music has drifted ever so slightly away from pure sludge and slightly towards the classic rock and punk that influenced Osborne’s work at his earliest age. These songs all take the classic rock, heavy blues-riff style that influenced the songwriter, and he takes them back to the basics. Non-fans should appreciate the focus on guitar hooks and slightly more traditional songwriting, even if for a limited number of listens. Melvins fans should feel right at home listening to what amounts to another Osborne experiment that focuses on songwriting over arrangements. This is another unique release from the Melvins family, which would make as much sense under the band’s name as it does as a solo release.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.