Whenever you put two artists of strong temperament together, you either get genius or dissonance. Most of us probably still remember the supergroups of the Seventies — generally ill-fated attempts to forcibly engineer a rock band by taking the brightest stars from various outfits and sticking them in a studio together. Sometimes the offspring from such a crossbreeding had a decently long life — Blind Faith, for instance, is still a pretty decent record even if nothing truly spectacular — but most of the results didn’t merit more than a paragraph in the All-Music Guide. Who here remembers bands like GTR? (Who wants to?)
This sort of thing hasn’t died out entirely, but evolved a bit and become less a mark of something to avoid at all costs as being a sign of sheer marketing greed. Consider Pigface, drummer Martyn Atkin’s revolving pick-up band that consists of him and whoever else happens to be in the studio that week. This approach has produced a few excellent and listenable tracks and a lot of dross, but even the dross is interesting thanks to the caliber of the people involved: Shonen Knife, Michael Gira, Jello Biafra, the Einstürzende Neubauten gang, and on and on.
And now we have Lustmørd and the Melvins sharing a disc — two artists who barely ought to coexist in the same sentence, let alone the same disc. The Melvins are off-mainstream, quasi-experimental punk / metal icons that got caught up in the same dragnet of success as Nirvana (they were close friends with Cobain and his circle, and supported each other on tour), and laced their music with black, biting humor. Lustmørd — also known by his real name Brian Williams — is widely credited as being the pioneer of dark ambient, music that brings to mind one being suspended feet-first over the abyss. Many of his early records (Paradise Disowned, Heresy) were created in crypts, grottoes and underground locations where he was squatting in a tent at the time. On headphones they are downright vertiginous.
These two artists shouldn’t work well together, but they do, and that’s the truly remarkable thing about Pigs of the Roman Empire. I was half-expecting the record to consist of little more than the Melvins playing in a cave and being fed through the world’s longest spring reverb, but it’s a lot smarter and more meticulously put together than that. Each artist has his own territory, and in each track on this disc they’ve found ways to make their own respective talents work together. Some of the tracks are the sort of ugly, dark driftwork that figures prominently on all Lustmørd records, but even there you can still here the Melvins at work distantly in the background even if they’re only providing some kind of deep instrumental presence. When the Melvins step forward and play, Lustmørd provides both production accents and occasional extra instrumentation: garbled samples; buzzing, whining electronics; or little ear-candy opening-and-closing segments to the songs.
There are many touches here that should be familiar to fans of both outfits, and they often cross-accentuate each other. Lustmørd’s trademark Tibetian horn opens the title track; Dale Crover’s complex and widely-praised drumming sometimes gets spotlighted by Lustmørd’s production design (i.e., turning a single tom stroke into a massive taiko-like reverberation). When there are lyrics, they’re mainly for the sake of using the human voice as an instrument and not for the sake of coherence, although the lyrics “Struck blind ‘cos you’re making me sick” figure into the sleeve notes, and nicely sum up the Melvins’ propensity for literate bile-spitting. The album actually feels a lot shorter than it probably is — the title track is over 20 minutes long — but there’s a lot here to go back into and savor in detail.
Both bands have histories of fruitful collaborations, but closer to home turf. The Melvins did co-releases with Jello Biafra; Lustmørd has worked with ambient composer Robert Rich. This record is good evidence that every artist (even those already considered experimental or adventurous) can afford, every now and then, to step out of their immediate circle of influences and into alien territory. It might not always work, but when it does, look out.