There’s something of a shocking duality to be found in ‘A Walk With Love And Death’. Surprisingly, it’s Melvins’ first ever double album – despite an unruly discography going back some three decades plus. Despite being coupled together under the banner of one album, ‘A Walk With Love And Death’ is perhaps best viewed as two separate records tied together rather than a singular entity spread over two LPs. The two albums contained here juxtapose the group’s most accessible work in a decade with their most abstract and challenging effort in over twenty years. It’s an initially confusing paradox that certainly doesn’t make for the easiest of albums to process but it makes a perverse sense; Melvins have always revelled in testing the mettle of their audience, putting out something approximate to straight-up hard rock one moment (see the group’s penchant for covering Kiss) before descending into visceral, abrasive noise the next.
Disc one – or ‘Death’, as it’s known here – represents some of the most focused and satisfying material from Melvins in years. Riotously prolific even now – they put out two albums last year alone – the band have long released work at the rate of knots; a mercy given their ravenous fanbase, certainly, but it has occasionally come at the cost of consistent quality control. ‘Death’ sees the band put together their leanest, most cohesive effort in years – it’s not that recent efforts have been lacking but the band do sound energised here in a way that they haven’t consistently for some time. It’s (relatively) accessible stuff, too – those familiar with Melvins’ patented brand of avant-sludge mind-fuckery will instantly be at home here. The band aren’t retreating to old ground exactly but there are definite nods to various moments from throughout the band’s history. Opener ‘Black Heath’ evokes the less aggressive, more probing moments of 1994’s ‘Stoner Witch’; anchored as usual around long-term drummer Dale Crover’s inimitable half-nuanced, half-brutish stick work, it’s a surging leviathan of snaking riffs and hissed vocals.
Although largely existing on the fringe, free of genre constraints, Melvins have been known to slot fairly neatly into the world of doom metal when the mood strikes them. Although never quite straight-faced enough to fit into the berobed, continuously frowning aesthetic of the genre, the downtuned misanthropy of frontman Buzz Osborne’s rumbling guitar and clattering dissonance of the band’s avant-garde leanings have often led to some chest cavingly heavy moments. Here the group largely rein in such tendencies, the brutality of efforts such as 2006’s ‘A History Of Bad Men’ mostly traded in for a more melodic brand of experimental rock that loses none of the impact so apparent in the band’s heavier work.
In typical Melvins fashion, they do shoe-horn in a couple of more conventional moments into the generally bizarre proceedings; ‘What’s Wrong With You’ is a short, sharp blast of greasy garage punk, full of wailing lead guitar and stomping, urgent rhythms. Largely, though, the band indulge in more typical material; the undulating riffs and and taut rhythmicality of ‘Flaming Creature’ is unmistakable Melvins – the dirty power chords and exuberant fills suggesting what stadium rock would sound like in a world where the phrases ‘heavy’ and ‘pop’ were not mutually exclusive.
Clocking in at just shy of 40 minutes, ‘Death’ is relatively concise and sonically one of the most consistent and concentrated efforts of recent years; indeed, it’s easy to form the impression that Melvins have crafted an album that could – at a push – even be dubbed accessible. Even the briefest of glances at ‘Love’ – the second of the album’s two discs – inequivocably proves that not to be the case. Melvins have always been a group to demand a lot from their audience; an open mind and a good sense of perseverance are the bare minimum of what’s needed to get the most of the band’s more exigent material. Moments like 1994’s ‘Prick’ were statements of intent as much as anything; exhibitions of avant-garde muscle flexing that could certainly offer something to the most dedicated of listeners but were almost confrontationally inaccessible to all those but the most determined.
Given that the group haven’t indulged in anything quite that weird in a long time, it’s perhaps a surprise just how abstract the 43 minutes of ‘Love’ are. Apart from the surprise inclusion of the rough ‘n’ ready weirdo garage rocker ‘Give It To Me’ – not wholly unlike the sprightlier work of fellow noise-anarchists Butthole Surfers – the majority of the album’s not insignificant runtime is given over to impressionistic snatches of warped dialogue and ephemeral glimpses of squealing guitar and clattering drums. Such moments hint at more concrete songs that never quite materialise; instead, ‘A Walk With Love And Death’s second disc largely exists as an atonal splurge of buzzing electronics, distant echoes and abrasive atmospherics.
It’s clear that with ‘Love’ that the band purposefully crafted the disorienting yin to the relatively succinct yang of ‘Death’ but the disc does serve a purpose past mere symbolism. Those with an ear for such experiments will find plenty to sink their teeth into here; echo drenched percussive clicks and dissonant, wailing synth form their own little world; one where the band follow their own internal logic and make no concessions to those who fail to follow suit.
‘A Walk With Love And Death’, then, can be a challenging listen in its entirety but in many ways, it’s simply business as usual for Melvins. Although this might be their most extreme and ambitious album of the past few years, it’s ultimately no more strange than so many of their records. Long terms fans are unlikely to be phased by either disc – although the album has plenty to offer those who stick with it – and newcomers will find both extremes of the group’s long career succinctly expanded upon.