Wednesday, July 1, 2009

July 1: Melvins, "Houdini"

Artist: Melvins
Album: Houdini
Year: 1993
Label: Atlantic

While Metallica's metal always had a bit of pop appeal, Megadeth was all about speed, and The Misfits brought a heavy influence of punk rock, Aberdeen, Washington trio, Melvins, "kept it real" with their brand of "black," "sludge" metal. Taking heavy influence from the sound of Black Sabbath and seminal punk bands like Flipper and Black Flag, and subscribing to the "less is more" mentality, the trio create some of the most dark and devastating music the world has ever heard. Melvins had a profound influence on the entire "grunge" scene of the early 1990's, and traces of their sound can be heard in everything from Alice In Chains to White Zombie to Nirvana. More recent acts like Tool, Dillinger Escape Plan, and Karp also take much of their sound from Melvins, while the band Boris lifted their name directly from a Melvins song. By the time 1993 rolled around, Melvins had already released a number of great albums on a few different labels. Yet, with their first "major label" release, their sound comes together perfectly, and Houdini stands today as their greatest, and perhaps most accessible album to date.

Throughout their career, Melvins have been known for making the albums' that "they" want, in the exact manner they see fit, regardless of what "their sound" is supposed to be. Never taking themselves too seriously, they have also made themselves a name for their laid back, if not comical attitude. However, there is a good chance that Houdini would have never gained wide release had it not been for the efforts of fellow Aberdeen resident, Kurt Cobain. Melvins had opened for Nirvana on tour, and Cobain was admittedly a huge fan of the group. Also, Melvins drummer, Dale Crover, was the drummer for Cobain's first band, the aptly named, Fecal Matter. In reality, it was almost completely due to the work of Cobain that Atlantic Records signed Melvins; though they would be dropped from the label after only three (fantastic) records. Not only did he get the band signed, but Cobain produced a number of the songs found on Houdini, as well as adding guitar to "Sky Pup" and percussion to "Spread Eagle Beagle." Houdini presents a fantastic blueprint for metal bands who wanted to "stay" metal, and the formula presented by Melvins is still followed by countless bands to this day. One other note about the album is that the cover was done by then rising artist, Frank Kozik, who is now one of the most in demand poster and comic artists on the planet.

The music of Melvins is truly crushing, pulverizing, and as sonically gigantic as anything ever recorded. The sound is very dark throughout, and Houdini presents the quintessential fusion of heavy metal and hardcore music. Massive guitar riffs from King Buzzo make up the core of the music, and his guitar riffs pull as much from Greg Ginn (Black Flag) in their urgency as they do the sheer power and mood of Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi. Drummer Dave Crover, who also was the drummer on the 1988 demos for Nirvana that are featured on Nirvana's With The Lights Out, is easily one of the most talented percussionists anywhere, and whether playing lightning fast beats or creating amazing, non-traditional percussive tracks, his talent is truly second to none. The true percussive genius and range of Crover is featured on the ten-minute-plus musical experiment, "Spread Eagle Beagle." Even with both of these skilled musicians, perhaps the most intriguing member of Melvins was their bass player, Lorax. Lorax (real name: Lori Black), was not only significant for being a female musician in a genre dominated by men, but she also held the distinction of being the child of Shirley Temple and Charles Alden Black. Distancing herself as much as possible from the image of her famous parents, her musicianship is top notch, and her trudging riffs and flawless playing are the absolute key to the dark, somewhat sinister mood found throughout Houdini.

While Crover adds vocals on spots on Houdini, it is, as with nearly all of Melvin's catalog, King Buzzo who handles an overwhelming majority of the vocal work. Buzzo, AKA Buzz Osborne, was born Roger Osborne, started his music career as the bass player in the aforementioned Fecal Matter. Taking the anger and angst from many of the early hardcore singers, and combining it with the somewhat haunting and menacing mood of singers like Ozzy and Iron Maiden's Paul Di'Anno, the vocals of King Buzzo are a perfect fit for the musical mood. Delivering the vocals somewhere between singing and screaming, his deep, growling voice has been imitated countless times since, and the style has become almost cliché among dark metal bands. Though they are sometimes lost behind the ominous music, the lyrics found on Houdini are as well crafted as the music behind them. Strangely (in many opinions), the songs are mostly exceptionally well written lyrics about women and relationships. The juxtaposition between the grim music and the strangely bright lyrics is perhaps no more clear than on the song, "Set Me Straight" when King Buzzo sings, "'s times like this, Baby that makes it all seem worthwhile...I'm lookin' for something that I can find in a smile..." All of the singing on Houdini is truly fantastic, and King Buzzo's deep, snarling voice fuses superbly with the music. Yet, the irony of "what" he is singing perfectly sums up the contrast and even humor for which the band so well known and loved.

Melvins represent one of the countless bands who had incalculable impact on the world of music, yet never personally achieved great musical success. Their music had immeasurable influence on the shape and sound of what was called the "grunge" movement, and it also set the standard for what is now called "doom" or "black" metal. Though they most likely would have never even gained major label attention had it not been for the influence of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, the truth is that, even before they were signed to Atlantic Records, their impact on music was already so great that it was being heard in the biggest albums of the day. Largely due to the enormous amount of talent within the band, the catalog of Melvins is rather hard to narrow down to a single record that represents "everything" about the band. However, Houdini presents the trio in top form, and is easily one of their greatest and most universally reachable musical achievements. With its combination of flawless musicianship, tremendous, grinding music, and truly stellar vocals, all with enough "musicality" to be more accessible than most albums of the genre make Melvins' 1993 release, Houdini, a monumental, and genuinely indispensable album.

Standout tracks: "Hooch," "Honey Bucket," and "Joan Of Arc."

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