The Melvins' Power Disinfectant

How their sludgy 1992 album Lysol became the blueprint for the metal underground

The Melvins' Power Disinfectant
Courtesy Melvins.net
Lysol was quickly the target of litigation.

In the post-Nirvana moment of 1992, major labels were in a feedback-fucked, Seattle-sniffing feeding frenzy. Sludge-metal surrealists the Melvins were in an especially advantageous position; old buddy Kurt Cobain was championing the band right and left, even telling Spin that he wanted to buy Kirk Hammett a Melvins tee. Frontman Buzz Osborne correctly assumed that a major-label deal was nigh, and Atlantic ultimately took the bait for a three-record run that began with 1993's Houdini. But before that, Osborne says, "We knew we wanted to do a record that would be totally opposite. I didn't want to be perceived as somebody that was going for the gold, the brass ring. I think the same way as I ever did. And here was the record to prove it."

Which brings us to a visual that neatly sums up the '90s alternative-rock bubble: The Melvins, perched across from a table of record executives and proudly playing Lysol—a one-track monstrosity that begins with 11 minutes of foggy, mostly pulseless, impenetrable drone. "I remember we went to Atlantic Records and played them Lysol, like, 'Here's what we're doing now,' " remembers drummer Dale Crover. "They didn't bat an eye. . . . It was, 'OK, cool. You guys wanna do a deal?' "

It's hard to imagine an album like this making an A&R's mouth water—and it certainly hasn't moved Nirvana numbers. But nonetheless, the churning Lysol has emerged as the secret blueprint for contemporary underground metal. The euphoric, spiritual hum of opener "Hung Bunny" spawned the eternal drones of Sunn O))) and Nadja; the triumphant joy-doom of closer "With Teeth" foreshadowed the uplifting "life metal" of Jesu and Torche; cramming the whole thing into one 31-minute track informed "experience" records like Sleep's Jerusalem. (Says frontman Buzz Osborne proudly: "I didn't want people to just be able to skip the first song.") Lysol was also a résumé builder for bassist Joe Preston; his presence on that album eventually helped him earn the bearded bruiser positions in High on Fire and Harvey Milk. Crover even lovingly describes once getting a cassette demo from Japanese cult heroes Boris, on which a track sounded "almost like an exact note-for-note vocal line [from Lysol] that he was singing in Japanese."

The Melvins: Turning the alt-rock bubble into sludgy metal.
Mackie Osborne
The Melvins: Turning the alt-rock bubble into sludgy metal.
Courtesy Melvins.net

"I was kind of surprised when people actually did like that record," says Crover. "Certainly not everybody did. We ended up opening some shows for Soundgarden. . . . We opened with that song. After the first night, there was a review in the paper where the guy was like, 'This band Melvins played and all they did was get up there and play one note for an hour!' I think the next night we actually did just play one note."

"I remember when they were first going to make it, they were trying to decide whether to have it be an EP or an LP," says Tom Flynn, who released the album on his Boner Records imprint. "I told them that if it was an LP they'll get twice as much of an advance. Buzz kind of laughed and said, 'I think we'll make it an LP, then.' " With engineer Jonathan Burnside, the Melvins recorded Lysol at San Francisco's tiny Razor's Edge Studio with a $500 budget. Osborne remembers the sessions as a speedy five days; Crover wagers it was more like four—" 'Hung Bunny'—we didn't play that song more than once," he says. "I know there's even a pretty good guitar mess-up in the second half of the song, but fuck it, I'm not re-recording that." The band had to resort to crafty studio tricks to cull the best sound possible from a claustrophobic room where all the instruments were bleeding together. Crover's marching snare drum sounded like "a big bucket," so they sampled a single snare crack from Led Zepplin's "D'Yer Maker." Before the age of ProTools, they rigged a primitive trigger system from Burnside's old keyboard sampler and some painstakingly timed delay.

For the hulking "Hung Bunny," Osborne wanted to play "what the Swans would sound like if they played heavy metal"—ultimately an epic drone poem of coiling guitars and meditative moans. Osborne was an early adopter of the resonant chants of the Tibetan Monks. In the late '80s, years before Beastie-brewed '90s alterna-types picked up Tibet's cause, he checked out a pitch-black performance on the Berkeley campus. "It was really cool," he says. "As far as their religion goes, they can blow it out their ass. . . . When all the Free Tibet concerts were going on, I was like, 'Why don't they have a Find Tibet concert?' Show me where it is on a map and now tell me why you give a shit."

Greg Anderson of Sunn O))) has built a career on making similarly mythic walls of hypnotic sludge, even releasing a drumless cover of the unrecorded Melvins song "Rabbit's Revenge" that's often miscredited as a "Hung Bunny" cover. "The Lysol record and [Earth's] Earth 2 are the cornerstones of what we were trying to achieve, or what we were really emulating." Anderson says. "[Lysol had] much more space in the music. The riffs were given much more room to breathe and they were just huge." He credits a huge part of Lysol's unique sound to Preston, whom the Melvins had recently poached from the masters of sucking doom abysses Earth—though Osborne is less salutary. "As far as [Preston's] influence on that record," he says, "I thought he played the songs that I wrote fine."

The B-side of Lysol contains a punishing trio of covers: "Second Coming" and "The Ballad of Dwight Fry" by longtime Osborne fave Alice Cooper and a stripped-down reimagining of "Sacrifice" by splat-punk void-gazers Flipper. "Bruce [Loose], the singer from Flipper, told me that Will Shatter stole that whole song from some anti-World War I poem that he found," says Osborne. "Unbeknownst to everybody else. That makes it even better!" Lysol's most jubilant moment comes in the album's final two minutes, the sky-punching ecstasy-metal of "With Teeth." It's the favorite part of Steve Brooks, frontman for similarly blisstastic doomers like Floor and Torche. "That song is just fucking beautiful. It's a very triumphant song, but it's very sad, too," says Brooks, who, like Anderson, was a lifelong follower of the Melvins (both guitarists boast that they bought Lysol on release day). "When they first came through Florida, it was like when people saw the Sex Pistols and changed music. There would be no Goslings, Cavity, Floor, Syrup, Dove. Who knows what we would have all sounded like?" Osborne, who is usually evasive about his lyrical content, admits the optimistic feel of "With Teeth" was no accident. "The lyrics are meant to convey a sense that you're doing the best job that you can, regardless of whatever it may be," he says. "Everything's fine because you did the best that you could do. That's all anybody can ask."

After about 15,000 copies of Lysol were printed on CD, vinyl, and cassette, a snag almost sidelined the album entirely—the manufacturers of Lysol were none too pleased that their brand name was being used without permission. Crover originally leaked Lysol (the album name) to a fanzine writer; Lysol (the brand) responded by having a private detective call the Boner offices pretending to be a music writer from New York. Since the Melvins were coming up for the CMJ Festival, label head Flynn thought nothing of the call and sent the private eye a promotional copy. Another fake writer showed up to the Boner warehouse shortly thereafter. "He seemed very surprised I didn't just hand out copies to anyone who showed up at the door," says Flynn. "I gave him a one-sheet promo page. And then the next day, he came back with an older corporate lawyer and dumped two pounds of paperwork on me explaining why I can't do anything with Lysol.

"The main lawyer guy was this old, crusty man that basically had no sense of humor and no understanding of what was going on. It was like dealing with a robot," he continues. "Plus, I basically lied in court and he caught me. When I originally went to court, I said the record hadn't been made yet. I denied I actually made them because I was afraid that they wanted to take them all—which is true. After court was over, he said, 'I know you lied in there. I know these things are manufactured. You wanna see a picture of it?' That's how I figured out that the guy who originally got it was a private detective."

The company agreed on a compromise; Flynn had to unwrap every copy, place a black sticker over the offending trademark, and black out the CD spines. It was a Herculean task he mostly performed on his own. "There was already a few thousand at the English distributor," he says. "They had the same unpleasantness, with an English legal team coming into their warehouse and having to check everything out. It was even weirder there because Lysol doesn't even exist as a brand."

In the years since, Boner has been printing copies without the lawyer-rankling word—the album is now technically known as Melvins—and Osborne says a reissue still isn't out of the question. ("We better do it soon before the bottom drops out of this whole goddamn thing," he says.) But for now, the Melvins are simply looking forward. Now in their 28th year, they just released Sugar Daddy Live, their first live album with the deafening two-drummer lineup they've had since 2006, and are continuing to put out their usual deluge of seven-inches and limited-edition collector bait. "I want to die before the Melvins do," says Brooks. "A world without the Melvins would be a sad world to live in."

The Melvins will play 'Lysol' in its entirety on June 6 at Music Hall of Williamsburg

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