by Kelly Johnson
I discovered The Melvins back in college, about 10 or 11 years ago. After a few initial tries, I finally started responding to Houdini, and in particular, the song “Honey Bucket.” That song literally made my jaw drop. I remember hearing it for the first time and immediately playing it five more. One day, I was blasting it in my room and my roommate poked his head in the door, face amazed. “What is this?” he asked in awe. He had the same, dropped-jaw look that I had the first time I heard it. It was at that point that I began to know the power of King Buzzo, Dale Crover and their rotating cast of bass players.
Fans revere The Melvins for their longevity, consistency, and most importantly, their weirdness. Generally, there are no in-between opinions. You either don’t like them, or you absolutely love them. Meeting a fellow Melvins fan is like meeting someone from your hometown in a city across the country. You instantly bond and you instantly get it. Now, thanks to Third Man Records, the band’s long out-of-print major label albums are getting reissued.
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say Houdini was my gateway drug. Their major label debut for Atlantic Records, Houdini was released in 1993 during the much-talked about and subsequently maligned grunge-signing frenzy. It put them on the mainstream radar not only due to their high-profile gig on Atlantic, but also their big ups from Kurt Cobain (who “produced” some tracks on it and played guitar and drums on a couple others). It’s amazing to think of this record, with its innocent, 50s-style cover art, nonsensical lyrics, straight-faced KISS cover, and impossibly heavy tracks, sitting on the new music display next to albums by Candlebox and Tag Team.
The first sound you hear on Houdini is Crover’s bass drum/crash cymbal wallop. “Hooch” might be the perfect Melvins song: big, lumbering, off-kilter, and catchy. It’s even Beavis and Butthead-approved. (“These words rule.”) Besides “Hooch,” Houdini contains two of their other most enduring live staples, the aforementioned “Honey Bucket” and “Night Goat.” If you don’t listen to anything else by them, check out these three songs to see what The Melvins can do when they’re firing on all cylinders. The album ends with “Spread Eagle Beagle,” a 10-plus minute noise track of room-sound drums and strange, metallic plucking.
Stoner Witch doesn’t deviate, relatively, from the groundwork they laid on Houdini. There are absolute monster rock songs (“Queen,” “Sweet Willy Rollbar,” “Revolve,” “Roadbull”) mixed with experimental sludge (“Magic Pig Detective,” “Shevil,” “Lividity”). It’s one of the great rock ‘n’ crimes that “Revolve” isn’t played on classic rock radio alongside the grunge standards from that era. “At the Stake” might be their heaviest anthem since Bullhead’s “Boris.” Stoner Witch is The Melvins’ strongest album from their Atlantic days; it ups the production value (listen to those drums on “Roadbull”) while somehow maintaining cohesiveness through their straight-out rockers and weird explorations.
Speaking of weird explorations, Stag must have been the point where The Melvins knew they weren’t getting that extended-stay offer from Atlantic. It leads off with another enduring live staple, “The Bit,” which is as heavy and straightforward as they get on the album. “Bar-X-the Rocking M,” the other single from Stag, features a prominent trombone line and solo (courtesy of Dirty Walt from Fishbone), keyboard zaps, and even a goddamn turntable. It works somehow. Stag sounds like the band utilizing all of the instruments and studio trickery at its disposal for one last hurrah on Atlantic’s dollar. It’s got an honest-to-god indie/psych/pop song (“Black Bock”) and experimental organ track (“Soup”) bookending what has to be their approximation of hell in a song (the demonic and terrifying “Goggles”). Stag is a powerful and awesome album, but it’s not a great starting point for the uninitiated.
The reissues don’t have much in the way of bonus material; Houdini comes with the band’s cover of “Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)” by the MC5 that has been floating around for a while. According to Third Man Records, each album was remastered from the original analog tapes.
“We went into it thinking we were going to do one record and it would all be over,” Osborne explained about their stint on Atlantic. That attitude pervades the band’s approach on these albums; nothing about them feels compromised. The Melvins have always sounded like The Melvins. With Houdini, Stoner Witch, and Stag they just did it on the largest scale possible.