Can you believe this was recorded back in 1986? The same year as “That’s What Friends Are For” and Mister Mister? On a two-track, no less? Yeah, me neither. This review is terrifying for me to write just because 26 Songs — formerly 10 Songs before the lovely people at Ipecac Records got a hold of it and added 16 rare tracks and demos — is an absolute monolith of a record. It’s an historical artifact of immense importance (hey kids, about Nirvana…) but still sounds completely pure and undiluted by what came before, and especially after. To put it in context, consider them the Pacific Northwestern peers of the Swans, only less posey, THAT brutal and uncompromising. Place this album in its rightful spot as a touchstone for metal, hardcore, punk, stoner rock and pretty much anything that doesn’t involve Lou Pearlman.
Damn though, 1986? That means that “At A Crawl” is eighteen years-old! The fuck? Ten Songs is like the auditory version of of Dorian Grey, without that pesky portrait, of course. “Easy As It Was” is perfectly representative of the band’s aesthetic; reveling in malice and Keith Moon-esque drum rolls (though at half speed), the guitar thrashes back and forth like it’s a mastodon sinking in quicksand. The element that often gets overlooked in Melvins material is King Buzzo’s voice. It’s easily as dynamic as any instrument — growling, screaming, shuddering, whining, shaking. Brilliant. Songs that crawl along at Saint Vitus pace nevertheless last for Black Flag-esque periods of time, choruses and bridges are dispensed with quickly so that the next destructo-cement-mixer riff can be rolled out.
The drum inventiveness of Dale Crover cannot be overstated. Like the propulsive rhythms and fills that drive “Grinding Process.” Add an underlayer of dissonant riffs (for the drums are in the foreground for this number) and a spazz-blues guitar solo and a crawling coda. “#2 Pencil” starts out like a Slayer number and then decays into total somnambulant drone that’s almost painful in it’s deliberation alongside lyrics like, “have its lead lodged deep in my head.”
“At A Crawl” sums itself up quite neatly: an exercise in sadomasochistic surrender. “Snake Appeal” nicks a Stooges song title, tweaks it a bit, and then lashes it onto a teethgrinding rush of jerky speed, with Buzzo shouting out the words as quickly as possible. The depths of pain hinted at in the constipated screams of “Never!” on “Show Off Your Red Hands” still freak me out. Buzzo’s method, lemme tell ya, he’s as method as Nicholson. The original grouping of ten fade out with dual instrumentals, “Over From Underground” and “Cray Fish.” They’re good brutal death/punk/noise workouts that mine the same chord groupings over and over again, without the distractions of human words. (Much like mine.)
After the first clutch of ten, we’re then treated to demo versions of most of the songs on the album which basically serve as peeks into the band’s aural sketchbooks, working methods become a little clearer (well not really), and as much energy is put into demo recordings as is the “final version.” I was fucking well jazzed to see a demo version of the monstrous “Set Me Straight” appear. It’s a bass-heavy leviathian that probably provided a pretty definitive blueprint to the then-nascent doom metal movement, to say nothing of Soundgarden. Buzzo’s vocals are brilliantly nasal and feral. “Operation Blessing” and “Breakfast On The Sly” are the two other non-album demo tracks included here. “Operation Blessing” is the polar opposite of the Melvins aesthetic, a lightning-bolt of Extreme Noise Terror/Napalm Death-esque hardcore. “Breakfast On The Sly” is almost jaunty for the Melvins, an angular shuffle with inspired screeches and grunts from King Buzzo. The uncharacteristic burst of freakout speed from the Kill Rock Stars comp track, “Ever Since My Accident,” closes out the record, for all intents and purposes. Well, not really, cuz then there’s “Hugh,” which is a bout of Angel Dust-inspired ramblings from a high-school friend, Hugh Natch, while the band giggles away in the background and eggs him on, before letting him lead them through a messy blues jam that will apparently “make them a million dollars.” Ah, what might have been.
Typically perverse, but true art is always equal parts frustrating and brilliant. Just try and stop them.