If one wants to get technical, Freak Puke isn’t really a new Melvins album, despite what it says on the cover. It instead marks the debut of Melvins Lite, a pared down version of the experimental giants that teams usual suspects Buzz Osbourne and Dale Crover with rock and jazz bassist Trevor Dunn, who has previously logged in time with Osbourne in Fantômas and with Mike Patton in Mr. Bungle. For the entirety of the record, Dunn wrestles with a stand-up bass, never once using any sort of electric amplification. More than just a reconfiguration, Freak Puke signifies something important and thrilling that seems to happen every few years or so to the Melvins: their re-awakened desire to get truly weird.
This, of course, isn’t meant as a slight to (A) Senile Animal, Nude With Boots, or The Bride Screamed Murder, the three albums the Melvins have dropped since absorbing the then-entirety of kindred spirits Big Business back in 2006. Those three albums featured some of the tautest, whiplash inducing tracks of the Melvins’ past decade, catapulting them back into relevancy and back-catalog examinations (by both fans and the band itself, which has performed several full-album shows in the past half decade or so). So, of course, once the Melvins get comfortable, which it took about five years to do this time, they get strange once again. Freak Puke finds these desires funneled into something consistently gripping, entertaining, and surprisingly tuneful over a long period of time, something that can not exactly be said for some of Melvins’ past anarchic moments.
For his first outing with the Melvins, Dunn tears into his bassist role with astounding fervor, adding free jazz skronk (“Inner Ear Rupture”) and creeping dread that segues into popping momentum (“Baby Won’t You Weird Me Out”) to Osbourne’s reliably crunchy and spry guitar work. Dunn’s playing takes these songs that would normally sound pretty pedestrian in the Melvins’ catalog and flips them sideways, crams them through holes that they normally wouldn’t fit, and kicks them out to environments unexplored. Thanks to Dunn, the Melvins can now say they have a song that conveys the terror of a claustrophobe stuck in a miniature barn with the stink of countless animals in the air (“Worm Farm Waltz”). Keeping the whole affair relatively grounded towards the end are a couple of tracks that re-employ some of the Melvins’ past tricks, namely Osbourne’s yelling-from-on-high/disgusted sneer vocal stylings, which of course then lead into an agreeably sprawling take on the Paul McCartney and Wings track “Let Me Roll It” and the stampeding “Tommy Goes Berserk.”
The Melvins have now existed within four decades of musical change. They’ve seen contemporaries blow up and flare out, and their influence spill into the work of countless acts both old and new. Yet, instead of simply pumping out works that they know would satisfy their core of diehards, with Freak Puke, they continue to embody the creatively restless heart of independent experimental rock. Don’t let the “Lite” fool you.