Though it might not go down in history as quite the same sort of watershed moment, This Machine Kills Artists, the new acoustic album from Melvins frontman Buzz Osborne, could be considered the negative bizarro “Dylan goes electric.” The sludge metal legend has been slinging his electric axe since the early ’80s, carving out a mischievous niche for himself via barreling howls and humongous riffs. Suffice it to say, the idea of Osborne toting around an acoustic surely caused more than a few double takes. Though perhaps not as wildly game-changing (this probably won’t usher in an acoustic Buzz era), Osborne’s jump across the electric/acoustic tracks succeeds much the way Dylan’s did: by keeping the strengths while adjusting the settings.
Once the surprise of the steel string scraping wears off, the malevolent riffs and harmonic darkness of “Rough Democracy”, the head-nodding drone of “Laid Back Walking”, and the full-throated grit of “Everything’s Easy for You” all demonstrate that the acoustic Osborne isn’t that far off from the electric one. Though his longtime Melvin-in-crime, drummer Dale Crover, isn’t along for the ride, tracks like “Laid Back Walking” get an appropriate rhythmic punch from the rough strumming and choppy riffs.
But to compare This Machine Kills Artists exclusively to Stoner Witch and Lysol wouldn’t be accurate (or fair). The Melvins have gone through many different lineups and phases, so Osborne’s decision to stand completely apart under his own name for these songs is telling. And they do have their differences. Where a track like “The Vulgar Joke” might’ve gotten spread and droned out for a few extra minutes, this take keeps things succinct and punchy, and Osborne’s trademark bark is pushed toward the back and corners, into a strained, tooth-bared whisper.
There are some signs of forced experimentation. “Instrument of God”, for example, opens and closes with Osborne in a thick shout, but it spends its middle in a soft-strummed, detached nowhere. But on the whole, Osborne turned a confusing detour into an interesting wrinkle and a worthwhile addition to his massive catalog. “I came alive seething with ideas,” he burns on “The Blithering Idiot”. Osborne is the kind of maniac who is equal parts scary and appealing. Though his acoustic side sometimes fails to highlight both, it never ignores either.
Essential Tracks: “The Vulgar Joke”, “Rough Democracy”