September 21st, 1993, MELVINS released their fifth studio album, Houdini, through Atlantic Records. Houdini was the Melvins’ first major label album, with the band signing to Atlantic Records in late 1992. “It came on the whole tidal wave of Nirvana stuff,” Melvins frontman Buzz (King Buzzo) Osbourne said, “and I’m sure if it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t have had interest from a major at all.” As Buzz states, once Smells Like Teen Spirit “hit” in late 1991, record labels dove headlong into a piranha-like feeding frenzy in the glib hope they might sign the “next Nirvana.”
Atlantic Records went straight to the source. Melvins formed in 1983 in Montesano, Washington. Buzz Osborne, Matt Lukin and Mike Dillard attended Montesano Jr./Sr—High School, bonding over a love of Jimi Hendrix, classic rock and hardcore punk. Dillard soon left the band and was replaced by Aberdeen, Washington native Dale Crover. The introduction of Crover began one of the longest-running partnerships to have sprung from the fertile Pacific Northwest music scene. To this day, Osbourne and Crover have been the only permanent members of Melvins.
This lineup appeared on the legendary Deep Six compilation in 1986 and released the highly influential Gluey Porch Treatments album in 1987. Matt Lukin left soon after and formed Mudhoney with ex-Green River members Mark Arm and Steve Turner. Enter Lori Black, daughter of legendary child actress Sherley Temple. Lori (or Lorax) was born in Santa Monica, California and played bass for the Bay Area punk band Clown Alley.
The band’s influence grew with the release of their second album, 1989’s Ozma. 1991’s, Bullhead continued the band’s upward trajectory, as did 1992’s Lysol. With each of these releases, Melvins stretched and mangled the traditional concepts of rock music. Pummelling, glacial riffs and off-kilter song arrangements marked them out as standard bearers of underground weird. They single-handedly influenced and laid the groundwork for various splinter genres like grunge, doom metal, sludge metal, drone, experimental rock and more.
The Melvins’ connection with Nirvana stretched back to the mid-’80s. Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic were ardent fans from the get-go. Novoselic roadied for them in the early days. Kurt and Buzz were close friends, and there’s more than a whiff of Melvins off Nirvana’s debut album Bleach (which features drummer Dale Crover’s powerful drumming on three tracks).
So when Melvins signed their first major label record deal in 1992, the higher-ups at Atlantic Records thought they’d hit gold. Here was the band that not only influenced Nirvana; they were close friends, and their drummer played on Nirvana’s debut album. Picture the scene: A&R big wigs manically laughing while lighting fat Cuban cigars with hundred dollar bills. “These Melvins were gonna print cash..!”
An A&R at Atlantic who also ran Nirvana’s management company suggested that Kurt Cobain produce the new Melvins album. While initially open to the collaboration, the band quickly became disillusioned with Cobain’s behaviour once the recording sessions began. Kurt was not in a good place; his drug habits were at a nadir. When he did turn up, he spent most of the time sleeping, and his contributions were minimal.
“We did a bunch of sessions with Kurt Cobain,” recalls Osborne, “but it got to the point where he was so out of control that we fired him and went our separate ways, which is unfortunate because I think that would have been fun. Obviously, that was a little snapshot of what would end up happening, and I don’t have many fond memories of that – it was an absolute tragedy.”
Cobain was eventually listed as a producer on six of the album’s thirteen tracks (Hooch, Set Me Straight, Sky Pup, Joan Of Arc, Pearl Bomb and Spread Eagle Beagle). As a guitar player on “Sky Pup” and percussionist on “Spread Eagle Beagle”, as well as having a hand in mixing “Hooch” and “Set Me Straight.”
Jonathan Burnside, who worked as an engineer on the Houdini sessions, recalled, “It’s not easy reminiscing about making the album Houdini with Kurt Cobain and the Melvins. Bad communication, drugs, major label profiteering, rehab, schedule blowouts, it was a devil’s album.” The drug issues surrounding the recording were not solely the purview of Cobain. Lori Black checked into rehab after being busted for heroin possession in Portland, with Osborne and Crover playing bass on most of the album.
Houdini’s status as the best-selling Melvins album undoubtedly owes a lot to Cobain’s name on the sleeve. Yet its status as the most beloved Melvins album speaks to how well the band weathered these circumstances, dug deep and delivered the goods. For the uninitiated, it’s a perfect entry point to the vast Melvins back catalogue. Not because it’s more palatable or commercial; it’s neither of those things. What Houdini presents is Melvins in its purest form. It contains some of the band’s most instinctual, gut-wrenching, deep-rooted, emotional songwriting.
The album opens with “Hooch.” It’s an all-time Melvins classic. Crover’s cannon-shot drums pound out the opening sequence, kicking in the door for King Buzzo’s raging slab of molten riffage. Non-sensical lyrics smear across the slugging din, “Los ticka toe rest; Might like a sender doe ree;
Your make a doll a ray day sender; Bright like a penalty.” As opening salvos go, “Hooch” means business.
The bass that introduces “Night Goat” buzzes like the final exhausted wheeze of a dying wasp. Dale and Buzz enter with cavernous snare and insistent chugging guitar. The enormous depth of the production takes a tightly coiled verse and gives it thrilling weight. Crovers’ kit sounds like ancient Gods forged it on Mount Olympus. Buzz peals off a discordant, bluesy guitar solo before locking into a gripping chug. Distorted, incoherent wails smother and drown beneath the mix. “Night Goat” is uniquely Melvins, a stunning vortex of sound that castigates any notion of traditional song craft, building its own malevolent, beautiful world.
Following the blast of “Hooch and “Night Goat”, the sweet lul of “Lizzy’s” verse ebbs in, Buzz strumming a wickedly catchy clean guitar motif as Dale etches out some rifling percussion. The pounding chorus punctuates the song’s quieter sections, creating a thrilling dynamic.
Buzz and Dale are devout Kiss fans, so the band’s decision to cover “Goin’ Blind” from their 1974 album, Hotter Than Hell, may not be as left field as it seems. “Goin’ Blind is a really good song; I love it,” said Buzz, “When I listen to the Hotter Than Hell album now, it’s a lot better than what a lot of other bands were trying to do along those lines. It’s inventive and strange. It’s good brontosaurus rock.”
“Honey Bucket” is the sound of a fuming joyride through the gates of hell. Its whip-crack drums and buzzsaw guitars rage and burn in a violent temper tantrum. Crover and Osbourne are in complete lock-step. The energy is cathartic. The listener is left hanging on for dear life when the song hits its driving chug, which resembles non-other than thrash metal titans Slayer at their finest.
The droning, doom-laden girth of “Hag Me” is glacial, spacious, and so heavy it threatens to pull planets from their orbit. The infectious, meaty guitar and gilt edge hooks of “Set Me Straight” feel buoyant after the hulking weight of “Hag Me.” Lyrically, “Sky Pup” is a symbolic representation of hope and innocence. The juxtaposition of the vast sky and the idea of a young canine creates a sense of wonder and naivety, symbolising the potential for growth and new beginnings. Kurt Cobain plays guitar on the track. However, it’s unspecified what parts, but the watery chorus effect on the main clean-picked guitar isn’t one hundred miles away from the chorus effect used on “Come As You Are”.
“Joan Of Arc” is a galvanising bruiser. Its heavy thud is irresistible. “Teet” grooves with earth-shaking down-tuned guitar and squalling feedback; its verses see Buzz adopt his menacingly hushed voice over a descending bass groove and Crovers’ rock-solid drums. “Copache” is a riotous slap of invigorating noise rock.
“Pearl Bomb” lives and dies by its curious stuck-typewriter percussion; when the bass enters, the song feels like a soundtrack to a pulp noir thriller. “Spread Eagle Beagle” is a thunderous percussive prank and would predict the Melvin’s output for the subsequent decade, starting with their next album, 1994’s Prick, made in an adulterous coupling with Amphetamine Reptile Records, while the band were still on Atlantic.
The Melvins’ cantankerous refusal to compromise their sound has led them down some unique and thrilling paths. Over the years, their output has become staggeringly voluminous and, in nearly all cases, essential—their vast array of releases rivalling the career arcs of Frank Zappa and Neil Young. Houdini was them dipping their toe into the corporate rock world, but wholly on their terms.
The band would release two more classic albums on Atlantic Records before their dalliance with the big machine ended: the monolithic Stoner Witch in 1994 and the bat-shit Stag in 1996. “We thought Atlantic would take one album from us, hate it and be done,” Buzz explained. “But they did three, which is still surprising to us. People told us they were surprised, but trust me, no one was more surprised than us.”
He added that they “did not pursue major labels; they pursued us; plenty of bands from the ’90s era begged labels to help them sound commercial and sell records. That was never us. Atlantic left us alone; I don’t know why, but fuck, we delivered. I’d sign on for those terms again in a heartbeat. We charted our course, and we’ve followed it from the very beginning.”