Ministry / The Melvins / Corrosion Of Conformity
The Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN, March 19 2022
The Ryman Auditorium has a nickname. It’s called “The Mother Church of Country Music.” It even has church pews for seats. Part of me wants to write a review of those hard, wooden, unforgiving, pews. That part of me is my bony butt. There are health benefits for being skinny, but sitting in these seats is not one of them.
Riverboat captain Thomas Ryman found religion at a tent revival, which were popular at the time. He wanted a place to bring the revivals indoors, so he built the auditorium in 1901. Legend says his ghost still haunts the place and he can be heard stomping his feet whenever an act is too risque. Saturday night’s show by Ministry, The Melvins, and Corrosion Of Conformity wasn’t risque exactly, but we couldn’t have heard his stomping anyway over the pounding drums and distorted guitars.
It was a bit of a revival though. All three bands started in the 1980s, gained popularity in the 1990s, and faded from view in the 2000s. And they each showed they’re still relevant.
The lights dimmed and Corrosion Of Conformity’s Mike Dean walked out, strapped on his bass, and started playing a dirge riff. As a bassist, I immediately thought that his classic equipment of a Fender Precision bass and an Ampeg SVT amp should have sounded great. It sounded terrible. I get that COC plays sludge metal but this was muddy to the point that it was nearly impossible to tell one note from another. It was a low drone with no discernible rhythm.
John Green’s drums, on the other hand, were crisp and precise and loud. He’s a strong, interesting, and entertaining player.
When guitarists Pepper Keenan and Woody Weatherman came out, Weatherman got down on one knee and placed a hand on the stage where Country music singers have stood for decades. COC are from North Carolina and have been called a Southern Rock version of Black Sabbath, so his homage felt honest. He shouted, “Tennessee!” into the microphone with a smile, and he was that charismatic through the entire set.
He and Keenan played Gibson SGs through Orange amps, so it’s no surprise they sounded pretty much alike. Combined with Dean’s indistinct bass, it was a wall of distortion. Most of the songs were in the same key, so it was only Green’s drums and the vocals that indicated what song they were playing.
All four members sang, though you wouldn’t call it four-part harmony. There may not have been any harmony notes at all, but they sounded big. Not sinister, and not even aggressive, but big.
They finished the set with the 1994 song “Clean My Wounds.” It was an extra long version, with several dynamic variations. Their entertaining set was marred only by the sludgy sound. Of course, they were going for a sludgy sound. To each his own.
The Melvins are also known for sludge metal but their sound was much crisper. All three instruments and all three voices could be heard individually. With their tricky tempo shifts and intricate transitions, they struck me as not sludge, but prog grunge.
They walked out to the theme music from Sandford & Son. Drummer Dale Crover looked like an ordinary guy with his conservative haircut and his basic t-shirt and trousers. The other two members didn’t look so ordinary. Bassist Steven McDonald, best known for his time in Redd Cross, was a vision in white. He wore a white dashiki shirt, white pants, white shoes, and played a white Thunderbird bass. Guitarist Buzz Osborne, with his trademark gray curls, wore a long skirt, tights, sensible shoes, and a top with big eyes all over it. He looked like your crazy Aunt Edna who makes a living reading tarot cards in her parlor.
My wife thought McDonald’s stage antics, leaping and doing scissor kicks at points that didn’t have much to do with the music, was annoying. She said he was trying too hard. I took it to be a satire of rock star stage poses. Maybe he was in on the joke or maybe not, but his playing was to be taken seriously. His bass often took over the lead melody while Osborne’s guitar chugged along with the drums.
Their sophisticated rhythmic passages and melodies are the product of careful songwriting and rehearsal. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re a poor man’s Rush, but they’ve come a long way from the garage.
During the break, roadies erected a chain link fence across the front of the stage. Ministry have been using that fence since the 80s, so it wasn’t just an attempt at social distancing. It has always raised the question of who’s being protected from whom.
Ministry’s lead on music was the Ukrainian national anthem, and the backdrop displayed the words, “Ministry stands with Ukraine.”
Following the anthem, the band walked out and plugged in. Leader Al Jourgensen said a few words about how honored they were to be playing the Ryman, something he repeated a few times during the set. He seemed to be a very different man than the one I saw at Lollapalooza in 1992, and he almost seemed like two different people when he was singing and when he talked between songs. In the 90s, he was actually threatening. He still has his howl and angry demeanor when singing, but when talking to the audience he comes across as humble and centered. Polite, even. With his dreads flowing out of his wide headband and gentile speaking voice, he seemed like Captain Jack Sparrow gone industrial.
As good as the rest of the band was, the star was drummer Roy Mayorga. He was relentless, like a ferocious, robotic, jackhammer. His drums were the loudest instrument in the mix. If the point was to pound the audience into a metaphorical pulp, it worked. It was like a massage that hurts, but in such a good way.
Hearing the familiar sample of George H.W. Bush in “New World Order” brought home the point that it’s been exactly thirty years since Ministry released their album Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs. That album was a political statement, as is their new one, Moral Hygiene, with its samples of Donald Trump. Both albums say pretty much the same thing. Electing the rich helps the rich get richer, hurts the rest of us, and may get us all killed, rich and poor alike.
During a break, the roadies took down the fence. When the band came back, Jourgensen said they were going to do some songs from the new album. This is usually a buzzkill. It’s the time when the audience takes a seat, but that didn’t happen. Here’s the thing. The new songs are as good as the old ones. “Alert Level” and “Good Trouble” rival anything Ministry did in the 90s. Their political message is troubling, but the music is cathartic. The songs are smart, heavy, and visceral. At the end, Jourgensen again thanked the audience and the venue. It was heartfelt.
Overall, it was a night of great drummers and some strange creative choices. I overheard someone in the audience say he was disappointed that Corrosion Of Conformity went on first, but I think the bill was ordered correctly. COC are good but limited. The Melvins are somewhat limited, too, but varied, interesting, and creative. And like Jourgensen himself, Ministry is a magnificent force for good wrapped in evil attire. The man and the band are a juxtaposition of highbrow ethics and lowbrow vice. He never says so, but his dichotomy asks us to examine our own, and isn’t that the point of a good revival?