An appreciation of Melvins: ‘These are people who make up their own myths and legends, uncaring of what happens around them’

hold it in

This was originally written for a Russian publication as a review of the Melvins’ 2014 album Hold It In. I was trying to write for a wider Russian audience which…well, I have no idea I succeeded in that intention. (I was asked to play up the Nirvana connection.) The review was published, I believe. Needless to say, the promised payment never showed.

Melvins – Hold It In

There’s a Coen Brothers film from 1998, The Big Lebowski (U.S.), about a dude (The Dude, played in suitably unsavoury fashion by Jeff Bridges) who likes to go 10-pin bowling, drink beer and smoke the occasional hallucinogenic.  He gets mixed up in a whole bunch of unsavoury business, not his making.  Friends die, million-dollar drug deals go haywire.  Frames are missed.  In the penultimate scene – at the bar in the bowling arcade – The Stranger (played by a wickedly cowboy-looking Sam Elliott) watches The Dude shuffle off into the distance before leaning in close to the camera, and saying:

“The Dude abides. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.”

The Dude abides.  I’ve long puzzled over the use of the word ‘abide’ in this context.  I take it to mean “lives on” or “continues to exist, untroubled by all the troubles taking place around him”, or most likely (as one Internet commentator puts it) “remains in a perpetual state of Dudeness”.

I feel the same way about quintessential proto-grunge band Melvins on the occasion of their 24th studio album Hold It In.  Fashions come and go.  Friends die or get torn apart by drugs.  Kingdoms rise and fall.  America has its first ever black president and the human race is scant decades away from extinction.  Yet Melvins are still here, churning out their dark-humoured dark metallic music, carving out their own strange path.  They might shift their members every few years, they might change their sound as regularly as some heavy metal musicians change their underpants but they remain recognisably the Melvins.  Melvins abide.

Hold It In is a loose-formed, beautifully sprawling affair – the sort of confusion and abrasion of sound we’ve come to expect from King Buzzo and Dale Crover plus pals over the last 30 years.  In 2014, these pals are Paul Leary and JD Pinkus, guitarist and bass-player respectively with Austin TX’s demented psych-fuck band Butthole Surfers.  And to find parallels with Hold It In’s resultant freewheeling spirit, you’d have to go back to the mid-1990s – back to Melvins’ brief tenure with U.S. major label Atlantic Records, and the 1993, part-Kurt Cobain produced, Houdini.  And, like Houdini (whose second side Cobain famously once likened to the “sound of a drum kit falling down the stairs”), Hold It In is a wicked monstrous beast of an album.

The opening track, the Satanic Bride Of Crankenstein, could be classic Soundgarden.  Indeed, I’ve long felt Melvins could have out-stripped Soundgarden in sales if only they’d kept a tighter rein on their imaginations and warped sense of humour – not for nothing did they have Gene Simmons of KISS play bass with them at Lollapalooza in 1993 and 1994.  And there are other moments (in particular, the churning Brass Cupcake and heavy gravitational pull of Onions Make The Milk Taste Bad) where you feel the classic 1970s era Black Sabbath comparisons are more than justified.

Rolling Stone magazine have already memorably described Brass Cupcake as, “a track that sounds like The Cars and Devo plugging into Blue Cheer’s amp stacks”.  (Blue Cheer are the U.S. band that helped invent grunge – as defined by Mudhoney singer Mark Arm’s description of the form as being “cheap shitty overloading Marshall amps with the volume turned up to 11”.)  This is prime Melvins.

King Buzzo can still turn out a demented gnarly rasp of a metal voice, that’s for sure.  And Crover pounds the drums with a ferocity like very few others.  No wonder Cobain wanted him for the vacant Nirvana drum stool before Dave Grohl showed up on the scene.

Prime Melvins. Melvins abide.

For every full-on metal freak-out number such as Piss Pisstoferson (the name is a, uh, piss-take of American actor/country singer Kris Kristofferson) though, Melvins like to throw in a soulful number like You Can Make Me Wait – wherein new guitarist Leary seems determined to prove anyone can emulate J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr on Freak Scene, with a guitar solo that sounds as effortless as skiing down a mountain.  The backwards-trailed Barcelonian Horseshoe Pit is prime Melvins devilry, while Eyes On You is succulent barnyard boogie. Then it’s back to gravitational flux and ebb and flow on the densely motored Sesame Street Meat, and the Soundgarden glam crunch of Nine Yards.

This album doesn’t stay still, that’s for sure.

I Get Along (Hollow Moon) is an acid-tinged drunken metal hoedown.  No quarter asked, and none given.  Of course the album ends with the rampant resurgent sprawling 12-minute beast of a track House Of Gasoline… which you can quite imagine lasts for 30 minutes or more, live.  Played until sated and then played some more. These are people who make up their own myths and legends, who invent their own stories uncaring of what happens around them

As King Buzzo says:

Hold It In is a refreshing piece of fiction in a boring world of fact and bullshit.”

As Dale Crover says (about Brass Cupcake):

“It is our version of what we think pop music should sound like. Get ready to freak out!”

Warning duly noted.  Melvins abide.

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