Album Review : The Melvins - Houdini (1993)
The Melvins are a band everyone knows by name, but few have ever actually heard. Their main claims to fame in mainstream culture are being randomly namedropped in an Oscar-winning movie (Juno) and Buzz Osborne's feature in that terrible Nirvana documentary Montage of Heck. It's too bad, because The Melvins are a great band. Challenging and unpredictable, but great nonetheless. So, today you're going to lose your Melvins cherry, put your earphones on and listen to one of my favorite albums from Buzzo and the gang: Houdini. No album can exactly pinpoint what The Melvins are, but this one comes the closest.
So, Houdini is an album halfway between the perpetual influence of early Black Sabbath and stoner rock/doom metal as we know it today. It's heavy as fuck. I wouldn't pigeonhole it into any of these genres because the music is too fluid, but they were unquestionably influential. The slow to mid-tempo guitar riffs of Buzz Osborne and the pounding drums of Dale Crover are the engine that carries Houdini throughout its harrowing 55 minutes. The opener Hooch sets the tone with Buzz howling semi-coherent lyrics on a grinding, aggressive guitar riff that is amplified by a slick and discipline rhythm section. It's like listening to eighties classic rock with your fingers jammed in an electric outlet. It's great and uncomfortable.
Same goes for the throbbing and powerful Night Goat, widely recognized as one of their best songs. Lizzy has some weird, fun experimental tempo changes to it that make it unpredictable. Their cover of Kiss' ode to gerontophilia Going Blind is also great. The Melvins injected a slow, lurid melody that gives the song a veneer of perversion. That's one tough fucking feeling to elicit playing doom metal. Honey Bucket is the most straightforwardly enjoyable song on the record and the only one I would qualify of "rock" in the conventional sense of the term. Unsurprisingly, it was used for a single. Osborne's vocals almost sound like a young James Hetfield's on it. There's a punk/trash energy to it, but the glitchy, downtuned guitars keep it unmistakable.
Houdini is a also a great album to understand The Melvins' relationship to rock n' roll legend Kurt Cobain. He co-produced half the songs on it. He's also featured on Sky Pup, the weirdest song on the record, which has little to no guitar. It's mostly bass, drums, weird electronic sounds and babbling for four minutes. I don't know what Cobain plays on it, but it's an amazing mood piece. There's a powerful dreamlike quality to it. He allegedly recorded the percussions on... huh, percussive endurance test Spread Eagle Beagle which closes Houdini. It's unclear how much Cobain was involved. There are testimonies that he was in no shape to produce anything at the time, but he and Osborne go way back together. They went to the same high school and made music together way before they were cool. I'm sure Kurt's opinion weighed in the balance.
There is not one song I dislike on Houdini. That's why it's a classic. There are pieces that didn't stand out as much, such as Set Me Straight, Copache and Pearl Bomb, but they're not bad songs. They're just competing against timeless material here. Joan of Arc is another song I really like on the record. There's a circular, incantation-like quality to it like you're at an amped up black mass. Buzz Osborne's devil shrieks are genuinely unsettling on it. Houdini is a sludgy, doomy and pounding, but it's only one side of a band that defines itself by challenging boundaries and continuously trying new stuff. So, Houdini is important to understand the bedrock of The Melvins' musical identity, but everything that revolves around these downtuned guitars and pounding rhythm section is always subject to change. And it's a good thing because it inspires other bands to move forward too.