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A chastity belt for men composed of a handcuff and a length of pipe to prevent erections. While I worked at the bondage store several dominatrix types sent their whimpering little slaves over to buy one. Their facial expressions when confronted with the actual device were priceless.

Melvins is one of those rare bands that consistently shows up on musicians' lists of personal influences, yet never really broke out into the mainstream. In certain circles the name Melvins is a holy one, and in others it means nothing. Listeners of doom metal and/or grunge who are unfamiliar with the band will eventually find themselves asking, "why do I keep seeing the name Melvins everywhere?" Then they will likely do a bit of basic research, and find out that Melvins is a vastly influential hard rock outfit with a catalog of more than a dozen studio albums. It's overwhelming at first, and the potential fan will either give up, pick one at random, or ask for help. "Where do I start?" is the question. And the answer?

Houdini is practically a Melvins starter kit. The album came out after Lysol, which was thirty unbroken minutes of bleak heavy droning, experimenting, and rock covers. Before that was Bullhead, the gruff, surly, snail-crawl headbanger. It seemed that the next album after these two would squelch the listener into a compressed mass of jellied meat. Of course, this did not happen. Houdini has its share of aggressive rock, but it also has a couple (relatively) softer songs. There isn't too much weirdness either; it's got some odd bits, but for the most part it's a pretty straightforward rock/metal album. One thing it definitely is though, is a Melvins album. The riffing, the singing, the lyrics, the drumming, the song structures... Melvins have a specific way of approaching and executing all of these, and Houdini showcases them best.

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"Hooch" starts the album off properly, with a vicious, snarling vocal delivery and steadily pounding drums and guitar. It's a fan favourite and one of the best Melvins openers, though most of their albums do tend to have strong opening tracks. "Night Goat" is next, and is another popular song with Melvins fans. The main riff is low and simple; it just crawls relentlessly with the drums beating it on. With Buzzo's voice unraveling into a high, jagged shriek at the end of each verse, "Night Goat" sets the bar high at an early point in Houdini. The next track is "Lizzy", with a mostly clean guitar and light, lazy singing in the verses. Instead of trying to outdo "Night Goat", "Lizzy" stays calm and quiet, but on each chorus it lets loose with raucous bellowing. The next song is a KISS cover: "Goin' Blind" reimagined as "Going Blind". It's faithful enough to the original but much heavier, and its absurd lyrics ("I'm ninety-three; you're sixteen") suit the Melvins style of humour well.

"Honey Bucket" brings the anger back with a drunken, epileptic intro and a wild main riff that sounds like "Night Goat" on cocaine. The listener is afforded that one burst of energy, and then gets ready to be powerfully sedated. With the seven-minute "Hag Me", the album takes a detour into dead-eyed droning. Lethargic guitar growls along to King Buzzo's deep wailing, and Dale Crover accents the ensuing vibrations with the appropriate cymbal crashes and restrained drumming. For the final ninety seconds, we are subjected to a repetitive pounding that slowly dissolves into a sea of roaring white noise. There is a second of crackling, and then "Set Me Straight" starts in. This song is perhaps the weakest point on the album. It's a fairly rudimentary rock song, and probably the closest thing to grunge that Melvins ever recorded. It's not a bad song, but it is a definite low point. No matter; "Sky Pup" redeems the album immediately. Here the whinging, understated vocals are buried under a fantastic bass groove that completely dominates the song. Not a single word is intelligible (I'm assuming they are real words, which isn't the safest of bets when dealing with Melvins). Buzzo did the same quiet, whiny gibberish routine on track six of Bullhead, "If I Had An Exorcism", so it isn't anything new, but it's amusing enough. Apparently, he never did get that exorcism.

In "Joan of Arc", Buzzo calls out in a dazed monotone amidst chugging guitar, and as the wordless chorus approaches, his voice veers upward into a shrill scream. It's almost like a simpler version of "Night Goat". At the start of "Teet", a mess of guitar notes tangle up and cause a mess of feedback that squeals over a basic bassline. The verses are free of guitar, and the vocals here are soft over the bass, but then the chorus comes and guitar chords crash down. It's the classic Nirvana formula of a quiet verse and loud chorus, but bookended with some piercing feedback. At the end of the song, the squealing lasts for a good thirty seconds, and segues into "Copache". Like "Set Me Straight", "Copache" is another low point on the album, though not necessarily a bad song. It's nondescript, just two minutes of basic heavy metal with a tinge of something like surf rock to it, and some muffled singing. "Pearl Bomb" is pretty cool, though. This odd little track is composed of a rapid, rigid bass drum thudding, and a bass guitar that occasionally joins in. The vocals are on the quiet side again, a sinister whisper, but it's the metronome-like beat of the drum from start to finish that defines this song. It's the last time we'll hear Buzzo's voice on the album, and there isn't any more bass or guitar from here on, either.

Honouring a sort-of-tradition of ending Melvins albums with a long percussion solo, "Spread Eagle Beagle" features drummer Dale Crover pounding away for ten minutes. It's not fast-paced at all, and sound disorganized, almost freeform. It is perhaps to drum solos what droning is to guitar solos. This amorphous blob of drumming is not worth listening to on its own, but it winds the album down nicely when Houdini is taken as a whole, as all albums should be.

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Houdini is not simply a collection of great Melvins songs. The stronger songs and the weaker ones are interwoven to ensure that the listener doesn't lose interest. "Hooch" and "Night Goat" grab attention, and "Lizzy" and "Going Blind" hold it. "Honey Bucket" speeds everything up, and "Hag Me" slows it way down. At "Set Me Straight" Houdini almost falters, but the song is a short one and "Sky Pup" comes swiftly to the rescue. "Joan of Arc" and "Teet" do a good job of shredding your ear drums, and then the album starts to fade out with "Copache". With "Pearl Bomb" one final blow is delivered, and then the whole thing is set out to sea with "Spread Eagle Beagle".

If it's Melvins you want, it's Houdini you get. No other album comes close to being as comprehensive of the Melvins discography as Houdini is. There's a little bit of everything here.


1. Hooch (2:51)
2. Night Goat (4:41)
3. Lizzy (4:43)
4. Going Blind (4:32)
5. Honey Bucket (3:01)
6. Hag Me (7:06)
7. Set Me Straight (2:25)
8. Sky Pup (3:50)
9. Joan of Arc (3:36)
10. Teet (2:51)
11. Copache (2:07)
12. Pearl Bomb (2:45)
13. Spread Eagle Beagle (10:13)


Houdini - Melvins - 1993 - Atlantic Records

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