Underappreciated Album: Milk Cult

Underappreciated Album: Milk Cult – Burn or Bury

The early 1990s seemed to be a tough time for Boner Records, a somewhat small, Berkeley-based indie label dealing in punk and that sludgy hybrid of punk and metal many would come to dub grunge. Unlike Sub Pop or Amphetamine Reptile or Touch and Go, though, the label never got much press in the media-fueled Alternative Revolution of the day. And to top it all off, Boner lost two of its biggest name acts – Melvins and Steel Pole Bath Tub – to the majors in the midst of said revolution.

While seeing Melvins’ Houdini or Stoner Witch released by Atlantic must have been a sore spot, what also can’t be overlooked is an incredibly engaging and diverse disc by a Boner Records act hitting the streets only after the band had left the label.

Milk Cult – a San Francisco band that could be deemed a Steel Pole Bath Tub side project – released its full-length debut on Boner in 1993. An 11-track affair, the disc contained the found sound dirge-score to the Frank Grows film Love God and the 38-minute monster “Clown Party,” as well songs that explored the sonic space between the warped lurch of the turntable and the bassy growl of a pumped-up amp. It was the record the band released when it jumped onto Priority Records, however, that displayed the cult’s full potential and inventiveness.

In the most basic sense, 1994’s Burn or Bury is a strange mutant combination of rock, jazz, and hip-hop, a record that is dead-set on not being nailed to or restricted within a single set of rules or expectations. Over less than a dozen songs, the listener is handed pounding indie rock and densely structured, atmospheric fare, bass-driven contemporary be-bop, and jazzy explorations that lean on hip-hop drumbeats, turntables, and samples while sounding like outtakes from a frighteningly cinematic Ennio Morricone nightmare.

For a testament to just how intoxicating this musical cocktail from Milk Cult is, consider this: Mike Patton lends some of his most over-the-top guest vocals to the record’s amazing opening track and it doesn’t come close to overshadowing the madness of the rest of the record.

Mr. Patton, however, is far from the only one to help out Milk Cult’s core trio of Conko, The Bumblebee, and C.C. Nova (Yes, those are their names) on Burn or Bury. The liner notes list contributions by over a dozen other musicians, everyone from Faith No More’s Billy Gould and Steel Pole Bath Tub percussionist Darren Mor-X to Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach and the more pseudonymous El Bobo D’Amour (who lends vocals and “All Star Break angst” to the proceedings).

The number of musicians who pop up certainly doesn’t detract from the patchwork feeling of much of the disc, the sense that you never quite know what’s waiting around the corner.

The disc kicks off with the descending grooves of the perfectly titled “Psychoanalytwist,” which grows into a trance-inducing rumble amid the aforementioned barking, squealing, and multi-tracked scatting of Mike Patton. But what’s around Patton’s vocals is what drives the song, a catchy bass line and drumbeat accented with all sorts of turntable spins and samples, as well as what sounds like a trippy, delay-heavy guitar line buried deep in the mix. Milk Cult then begins its sightseeing tour through a land of dense and atmospheric jazz-rock songs, offering intriguing early details like the grooves and 60s spy theme asides of “The Fuzz Wah Song” and the roaring refrains (literally) and almost tribal percussion of “Bow Kiness Static.”

What’s amazing, though, is how the record continues to expand while remaining somehow true to a core sound. Milk Cult isn’t interested in sounding like an angry rock band with wailing guitars in one breath and a sample-crazed free jazz outfit the next. The band found a way to marry the sometimes-conflicting sounds of multiple genres into one cohesive whole. Maybe the record should have been called Burn AND Bury.

Pulling out interesting individual moments from the record is difficult, because it can be a tightly wrapped package. Songs stand on their own merit (and there’s no reason why college/independent radio shouldn’t have picked this up on its radar), but Burn or Bury is still best ingested collectively. There’s a strange sort of tie between the upbeat 1-2-3-4 skip of “Blue Godzilla,” say, and the ominous political moral lesson of “Big King Frog.” But, again, the moments are clearly worth noting.

On the aforementioned “Blue Godzilla,” Milk Cult gives Soul Coughing a run for its money in the “catchy, atypical rock with a back-beat” category. The real difference is that, while Soul Coughing was grounded in the verbal wordplay and free-spiritedness of M. Doughty, Milk Cult is a much darker, meaner, and more complicated beast. For evidence, there’s the non-linear soundscapes of “Urine, the Money,” where the band shifts between cut-up Cheer Accident riffing, foreboding Bernard Hermann string interludes, Pretty Hate Machine-era electronica, and an acid-laced march where guest vocalist Lars Foxx does a menacing impression of the poet Steven Jesse Bernstein.

And that’s just one song.

Elsewhere, Milk Cult uses some of the trappings of hip-hop – the attention to repetitive grooves, beats and samples – to play up its clear love of jazz structure. Take “Son of Obituary,” one of the finest examples of locked grooves on this side of Ui. Unlike the post-rock crowd (who occasionally use subtle repetitions to build tension and expand scope), though, Milk Cult uses the convention as a means to lull the listener into a kind of sonic trance. Most of the record’s tracks seem to inherently realize this, looping their best parts a good handful of measures beyond their logical conclusion.

On first listen, you may wonder why Milk Cult is running songs to four or five or six minutes that it could dead-end at two or three. After a few listens, though, the subtle details of each track surface and the repetitions force the listener into an expansive groove.

The record ends in fine shape, with songs that sometimes seem to put aside the more avant-bent stylings of the record’s first half for darker, more abstract fare. “Hello Kitty (Meow Mix)” is the epitome of drunkenness, a trumpet slurring over a slow, moody progression. “Rabbit in the Hole” beats Filter to the punch on the catchy post-punk bass line (and revisits Cop Shoot Cop, to some degree), matching it up with verses that could be called, for lack of a better term, dueling screaming.

After the roaring subsides, Milk Cult close Burn or Bury with two songs that hint, if only vaguely, at the record’s title, offering the formless death march, semi-structured found sounds, and morose grind of “Sabine” and the 11-minute epic “’63 Mercury Meteor ($500).” The tracks are heavily atmospheric and rely more on the inherent horror-film narratives of Love God than they do on the dangerously addictive hooks of “Psychoanalytwist.” It’s an interesting and unexpected close to an interesting and unexpected record.

If this record had found its audience and Milk Cult were fostered to keep walking the path they seem to be exploring here, Burn or Bury could be called square one and not just an intriguing footnote in the Steel Pole Bath Tub side project canon. With only one disc currently being released after their 1994 effort, we’re left to call it, however, just what it is: a lost classic in the making

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