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The Melvins’ Houdini turns 20

As with any classic record, this one has a story to it for me. I was 14 and had enough money to buy some new records: there was a decent record store in my town, so I popped right on down forthwith. In addition to Slayer and Origin, I chanced upon Houdini. The weirdness of its presence struck me: here, in a section dominated by bands like Goatwhore and album covers like Tomb of the Mutilated, was a band called the Melvins with a ’50s style pop art cover. None of the song titles on the back appeared “metal”; maybe “Nightgoat” if you were generous. Had some hipster ironically slipped an indie rock record into my beloved metal section? But then why was there a partial discography too? I was perplexed. But I was also adventurous, and so I bought Houdini, took it home, and gave it a spin.

Well, it sure didn’t sound like Slayer or Origin. But it didn’t sound like the alt-rock I’d been expecting either and, as I sat in my basement with the volume fully turned up, the record began to grow on me. Sure “Hooch” kind of went nowhere, and the vocals were, to my young ears “clean” (a faux pas in those young days). But “Nightgoat” captured my attention immediately. It was slow and crawling, offering buildup with no release, a song that left me curious as to what its intentions were. Having been intrigued, what really won me over was “Hag Me.” Now, it’s impossible for anyone to objectively quantify “heaviness,” but let me be the first to argue that “Hag Me” is, in my opinion, one of the heaviest tracks ever recorded: nearly eight minutes of sparse, gargantuan drums coupled with a guitar tone that is heavier than what fills Tony Iommi’s dreams. From that point forward, I was completely enthralled.

Houdini stuck with me over the years, but not just because of the meaty riffs. Rather, in equal part for their surrealism. You can’t draw a box around a record that has vocals but no meaningful lyrics. I mean, “Los ticka toe rest. Might likea sender doe ree..?” It’s “verse without words” as Schwitters might have it; it’s downright Dadaist. The fact that they openly flaunt this on their first major-label recording is no less commendable. And, for that matter, so is the fact that they always retain an element of sincerity. Yes, it’s clear that Buzz, Dale, and Lorax were in part having a go at pretentious metalheads, but they clearly enjoyed their chosen oeuvre or they wouldn’t have put so much effort into crafting such memorable songs. “Going Blind” seals the deal: you could argue that they were being ironic, but again note the effort they put into the track, plus the later album covers that aped the KISS solo series. No, the Melvins had the right blend of sarcasm and earnesty on Houdini, which makes listening entertaining without having to feel in on a joke.

Houdini is not the Melvins’ heaviest record: that’s probably Bullhead. Nor is it their most absurd: that’s probably Prick. But it is the record where the “Melvins experience” is more accessible and most clearly executed. Given the resources of a major label, the band could have altered their sound, but as it was they merely streamlined it, honing their heft and their surrealism to a perfect balance. Other albums may have perfected their formula, but Houdini is where it is best realized and, for a new fan, the optimal place to start one’s journey into the bizarre alter-verse of the Melvins.

— Rhys Williams

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