The year 1990 saw the Reunification of Germany, the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, and the formal beginning of the Human Genome Project. It was also the year that Timothy Berners-Lee created the first web server, which laid the foundation for the internet. 1991 saw the end of the Cold War, the Gulf War, and the confession of serial killer Aileen Wuornos.
And amidst all of these things, a small band from Montesano, Washington, who by this time had relocated to San Francisco, California, were hard at work on the first of a landmark six releases by 1992 alone. Indeed, the early 1990s were a change of pace for the world, and a creative and prolific time for the Melvins.
Recorded in 1990, and released on May 3, 1991, Bullhead is an all-out sonic assault. Not only is this the album that brings about a significant change and overall refinement to the Melvins’s sound, but it’s also the album that kicks off the 90s proper for the band, and what some might call the Boner Records era, despite 1989’s full-length, Ozma, having also been released by Boner Records.
There’s a clear refinement of sound that takes place between Ozma and Bullhead. While Ozma laid the groundwork, Bullhead took the reins, and the songs became longer, slower, and above all, sludgier.
For Melvins fans, Bullhead’s cover is iconic. It’s a very simple design; quite literally a basket of tropical fruit against a blue background, with a small, vintage-style drinking glass at the bottom center. In the top left corner, the band’s name in lowercase. And in the bottom right, the album title in capital letters. This author has always thought the album cover to be Warhol-esque; out of place yet refined; fitting of the material in an odd and uncanny way.
Bullhead is just under thirty-five minutes long and opens with Boris, an eight-minute monolith of a track that to this day remains a crushing example of what the Melvins are capable of. The track opens with Buzz Osborne’s solo guitar churning out a down-tuned, sluggish, palm-muted riff that will carry the song through its gestation. The guitar here has been doubled, and one can distinguish two very different, yet complimentary guitar tones. Osborne is joined within due time by the multi-dimensional drumming of Dale Crover, who is working in his characteristic style (read: brilliantly random), and a solid bass groove from Lorax, aka Lori Black, aka the daughter of one Shirley Temple.
As Boris twists and turns, one may notice that the lyrics are both catchy, yet make little sense, a longtime trademark of the Melvins. Indeed, a simple Google search will yield a multitude of interpretations. The line that always sticks out to this author, and seems to sum up the song; Boris likes a lot of little things to kick, is perhaps one of my favorite lyrics in Melvins history. The track closes with a solo section; just Buzzo (in one of his best vocal performances), and his guitar. I love how nothing here sounds double tracked; it’s raw and sounds like it may have been recorded live in one take. Boris doesn’t really end; it just sort of stops, and makes way for Anaconda to begin with its signature drum groove.
Anaconda is the shortest song on the record, at just under two-and-a-half minutes, but it’s a scorcher filled with palm-muted goodness and is easily a beaming example of the Melvins working at their own pace; neither fast nor slow, but just sitting pretty in the middle. Ligature, in stark contrast, is another slower track, punctuated by its near lack of treble. Crover uses his toms throughout the track to keep time, rather than a more traditional ride cymbal or hi-hat.
Occasionally the listener hears the ribbon crasher as an end-cap to a measure. Towards the end of the track, the listener is also treated to the first appearance of the ice bell in the album. This is a track that is driven by Crover and his drums with Buzzo taking on more of a passenger-like approach.
If you ever want to hear the Melvins do “normal” and “poppy,” look no further than It’s Shoved. To this author, it’s easy to hear a track like this and find reminders of bands like Flipper and The Wipers, who were major influences on Buzz & Co. in the early days. Once again, this one is largely carried by Crover’s drum work, but Osbourne’s guitar work also shines here as well. The ending riff is stellar.
Zodiac once again launches the listener in a whole new direction, this time opening with a faster, down-picked and heavily fuzzed out riff. This song is a Melvins classic, and has been covered by the likes of Brutal Truth (their version appeared on the Singles 1-12 album), Strapping Young Lad, and Sleep, and I’ve always thought that this song may have also influenced Nirvana’s song School, or maybe vice versa, as the two songs do share some sonic similarities, however it’s hard to know exactly when each one was written, and Nirvana’s School did arrive on 1989’s album Bleach, which would place it prior to Bullhead’s release. It’s important to note Crover’s heavy use of his ribbon crasher, and this author would be remiss not to point out the breakdown in the middle of the track, which is perhaps the heaviest point in the Melvins career (at the time of this album’s release).
If I Had an Exorcism is a track that is special to this author. Along with the song Oven from the aforementioned album Ozma, If I Had an Exorcism was a song that was in a regular repertoire of covers that one of my old bands used to perform. Thus, I’m familiar with this one on both a fan level, and on a deeper level of overall musicality. The strange song structure seems to have ties to motifs that would be explored in more depth on the album Stoner Witch just a few years later.
The song itself is nearly built around one single note, and Lori Black’s bass playing really stands out here as the driving force of the track. To this day, I still question what someone was doing with a coat-hanger.
As we move into the penultimate track entitled Your Blessened, the listener is again privy to the interesting sound of Crover’s ice bell and its use on the track’s intro. This opening drum pattern is subtle, yet sonically diverse, and is an excellent way to lead into one of my favorite tracks on the album. There’s a lot going on here; the bends in the main riff lend a siren-like quality to the first part of the track; we get a taste of feedback and lead guitar work towards the middle, and the track’s bridge is a patchwork of feedback, bass guitar, and drums that is the stuff of pure musical genius. At about five-and-a-half-minutes, this track is the second longest one on the album and should be required listening for any music fan.
Bullhead closes with Cow, a riff-centric song that reminds me a lot of With Teeth, the final track on Lysol. The structure of the first half of this track is very similar, opening with a monster riff, then into a verse, before finally launching into a fast-paced riff made up of two counts, with Osbourne’s vocals panned left and seemingly emanating from a megaphone (possibly a high-pass filter effect). The final minutes of the song break down into a barrage of drumming by Crover, and serve as a direct lead-in to the Eggnog EP, which would follow shortly after Bullhead in the latter part of 1991.
The early 90s would indeed see a plethora of amazing music released, but none on the scale of what the Melvins would do during the first two years of the decade. There’s a high degree of experimentation here; the launching of themes in the music of the Melvins which would go on to proliferate in the years and albums to come. Bullhead is a genesis of musical ideas, and easily earns a spot on this author’s top albums of all time. Don’t be a Boris, go grab this one if you haven’t yet. Vintage copies are easy to pick up online and it’s recently been re-released on vinyl by Boner Records with a slightly updated cover if that’s the kind of thing that tickles your taint. This one has a permanent spot in my cassette collection, and I listen to it often.