Words and photos by Yousef Hatlani.
How many bands have been born of the Melvins’ northwestern sonic toil? Likewise, how many groups have formed as a direct result of Napalm Death’s genre-founding 1987 album Scum? The lineage of these two bands is among the strongest in all of heavy music; nary an influential group in the spectrum of alternative rock to extreme metal –from Nirvana to Tool to Boris to Carcass to Sunn 0))) to Soilent Green—doesn’t owe a debt to them. And though the two collectives share a history of rotating members, the integrity of their output has remained distinct for over three decades.
2016, then, is shaping up to be another fruitful year for both bands: Napalm are touring on the back of their 2015 release, Apex Predator – Easy Meat—lauded as one of the group’s best in their sixteen album-strong discography. Melvins are putting out not one, but two records: a collaborative album titled Three Men and a Baby—recorded with godheadSilo bassist Mike Kunka in 1999 and finally seeing the light of day last month—and Basses Loaded, a full-length featuring all of the group’s current roster of bass players (as well as a guest spot by Krist Novoselic.) In addition to offering new songs, the album compiles an EP and a split release with Le Butcherretes that the band put out last year (Beer Hippy and Chaos as Usual, respectively,) as well as another EP from January of this year, called War Pussy. Teaming up with Japanese noiseniks Melt-Banana, the trio embarked on the appropriately titled ‘Savage Imperial Death March’ tour in late March—stopping by Portland’s Roseland Theater on Tuesday.
Melt-Banana—the Tokyo-based noise rock duo—were first up, launching into an immediately exhilarating set with “Chain-Shot to Have Some Fun” from 2003’s Cell-Scape. Melt-Banana’s sound is laid out perfectly here, with vocalist Yasuko Onuki’s chirpy and cheerleading delivery contrasting starkly with guitarist Ichirou Agata’s dissonant and glitchy riffs over harsh digital blast beats. The combination might sound interesting on paper—because it actually is: the band got the crowd behind them in short order, Onuki wielding a handheld synthesizer in victory pose, rallying everyone in the room up—bringing sheer fervor and stage presence that more than made up for the absence of a rhythm section. Although their set was only twenty-five minutes long, it felt perfectly structured; several fast songs, two minutes or under (with many of them found on 2013’s Fetch,) were doled out, one after the other—until Fetch’s opening track, “Candy Gun,” capped off their performance perfectly, perhaps best described as a sort of mini-kraut rock/grindcore suite, using a steady Neu!-esque beat amidst the group’s signature sound traits.
If it wasn’t immediately apparent, here is an undeniable affirmation: the Melvins are a bona-fide musical institution. With acutely perfected guitar tones, a menacing stage presence and grooves so wide that they’ve permeated everything from sludge metal to hardcore punk, the trio of vocalist/guitarist Buzz Osbourne, drummer Dale Crover and Red Kross bassist Steve McDonald put on a show unmatched in both heaviness and taste—a masterclass in the execution of their genre. Osborne, wearing his trademark robe (this time emblazoned with an eyeball not unlike the ones on the cover of Sun City Girls’ Torch of the Mystics,) strode around the stage like an uncaged grizzly bear—his characteristic wail and assault of guitar riffs standing out impeccably over Crover’s thundering tribal psychosis. The band’s dynamics wholly reverberated around every corner of the Roseland, maximizing a room that is suited ideally for their sound.
Over the course of an hour, the band fit in no less than sixteen songs—including quite a few covers, ranging from KISS’ “Deuce” early in the set to Green River’s “Leech” at the midway point. In doing this, they also plodded through tracks from many of their more recent studio albums—although their set went back as early as 1987’s Gluey Porch Treatments all the way up to the aforementioned War Pussy EP released earlier this year. With cuts like “Queen” from 1994’s Stoner Witch, “Onions Make the Milk Taste Bad” off of 2014’s Hold it In and “A Growing Disgust” from 2012’s Freak Puke, the Melvins showcase their distinct ability to go from sarcastic to sinister with just one turn—the musical equivalent of Travis Bickle. The biggest crowd reaction arose from Napalm Death bassist Shane Embury joining the trio on stage for the last song of their set, the Houdini anthem “Night Goat,” before engaging in a singalong of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”—an unexpected but strangely fitting end.
Legendary Birmingham, UK grindcore outfit Napalm Death took the stage next, their second visit to the Rose City in just a year—their last outing here being in February 2015 at the Hawthorne Theater with Canadian prog/thrash titans Voivod. From the opening trudges of their set with Apex Predator – Easy Meat’s title track, it was made clear why Napalm have been such an everlasting force in extreme music for so long: the band’s frenetic maelstrom of blast beats and whirlwind guitars are launched with a precision and mindfulness not often seen in groups attempting to imitate them. On top of that, vocalist Barney Greenway has, no doubt, one of the most defined and full-bodied growls in the business—a bark that lacerates listeners with every word and hasn’t lost its edge since joining the band in 1989.
And about that mindfulness: Greenway’s onstage banter evidenced an attention to philosophy, politics and charm; this is a band that doesn’t take themselves too seriously, and still delivers on all fronts. Their set spanned a fair amount of their vast catalog, going back to the title track from 1987’s Scum—eliciting maybe the loudest audience response for them of the night—to the classic cover of the Dead Kenndys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” up to several songs from Apex Predator. Classics like “Mentally Murdered” from 1990’s Harmony Corruption and the ever so famous blip of “You Suffer” were also played. It’s unfortunate that their set was just over an hour, given the extensiveness of their discography. But after taking in the perfect presentation of legacies that the Savage Imperial Death March tour offers, it’s obvious that there is a fire, an intellect and a longevity to this music that has blatantly refused to be dimmed for over thirty years—and so they will keep burning.