For as long as I can remember, The Melvins have been pegged as a sludge band, and for as long as I can remember, this classification has been nigh-on useless. Yeah, there’s no denying they began their career as vessels for hulking dirges like “Eye Flys,” “Charmicarmicat,” and “Boris,” and it’s similarly undeniable that their sound has a tendency to sink into opaque floods of grime and dirt, but to conclude from this that they’re a sludge or doom or — god forbid — grunge band is to give form undue priority over content when it comes to deciding what a band is actually doing with its music. Because if the lazy had actually bothered to listen beyond the filthy distortion and torpid guitar-abuse, they would’ve heard not a bunch of disaffected slackers or disconnected potheads, but a troupe of perverse and contrary weirdos who took delight in confounding the expectations of their audience and the increasingly trite rock scenes they’d grudgingly influenced. Buzz Osborne, Dale Crover, and their ever-revolving cast of bassists played around with awkward time signatures, bemused headbangers with forays into leering ambience and noise, and even when they were in full-on “rock” or “sludge” mode, any semblance to the tame catharsis of alternative music was undermined by Buzzo’s demented hobo-wail, which for my money at least framed them more as an inimitable art-brut or outsider-rock band than as some perfunctory riff enterprise.
Which griping means that it’s deceptively poetic that their latest (I’m saying 20th) album has them leaving aside Jared Warren and Coady Willis from Big Business and teaming up with Paul Leary — the guitarist — and JD Pinkus — the bassist — from Butthole Surfers. If there was ever a band from the same late-80s/early-90s melting pot that The Melvins actually had something in common with, it was the Buttholes, because just as it was with the Texans, the Washingtonians have exploited the forms and signifiers of rock only for the purposes of constructing their own singular identity, and never to affirm a group identity that would’ve had them rubbing shoulders with the likes of, say, Tad, Eyehategod, Soundgarden, or Earth. Both bands were and are oddities, and if anyone thought that the idea of their personnel intermingling for a full-length might be a little questionable, the skewed-pop bludgeoning of Hold It In buries their misgivings knee-deep in eccentric goodness.
This enthusiasm aside, it should be said that Hold It In is definitely more a Melvins LP than a Butthole Surfers one, which is just as well, given that it has their name stamped on the cover. “Bride of Crankenstein” opens with the furry chugs and spiralling dovetails that have been present in King Buzzo’s arsenal since the 80s, but even with these structural underpinnings, it’s remarkable how seamlessly Paul Leary’s off-center accompaniment slots in with the Osborne-Crover aesthetic and ideology. The peculiar squeaks that kick off the first verse and his cracked solo during the bridge heighten the dappy aftertaste that often follows so much of The Melvins’ stampedes, with similar touches and accentuations throughout the 12 blasts proving that the best collaborations don’t dis- or transfigure the parties involved into something new or unrecognizable, but actually help them to become more themselves.
And one hitherto underdeveloped and unsung quality that Hold It In brings out for The Melvins is the pop sensibility that you could occasionally find lurking under their scatty violence if you wore the right ears. The muscular hook of the aforementioned “Bride of Crankenstein” actually mirrors the melodic arc of Buzz’s “Spinning round the wrong way” vocal, while the succeeding “You Can Make Me Wait” is a strangely affecting indie-rock ode that features clean trebly chords, an emotionally route-one lead, and a pledge of undying love that’s delivered via a constant and appropriately improbable use of vocoder. There’s also the bouncing “Eyes On You,” a witness to the digitized panopticon the Earth has become that’s galling precisely because Leary is so chipper and celebratory in how he shoots off such lines as, “They know just what you do/ They got their eyes on you/ They know your money trail/ They know what’s in your mail.”
Moreover, it’s with these infectious yet implicitly caustic outbursts that The Melvins, as well as Leary and Pinkus, re-situate themselves within the no-man’s land they’ve nearly always inhabited, where they’re too wily for straight-ahead rock and too knowingly brutal for straight-ahead pop. And even within this seamy hinterland, they can’t remain in any one place for too long, for fear of being pinned down and typecast. This means that in addition to the crushing psych-metal of “Sesame Street Meat” and the bubblegum steamrolling of “Brass Cupcake,” there’s also the swirly “Barcelonian Horseshoe Pit” and its ambient-cum-shoegazy hallucinations, as well as the barn-dancing psychobilly of “I Get Along (Hollow Moon),” in which reverb’d guitars and bit-dispersing electronics usher Leary’s half-drunken tale of perseverance in the face of adversity. It’s conceivable that with such a pathological fear of being identified as either X or Y The Melvins-Leary/Pinkus Connection would fall foul of tokenism and superficiality in their rush around various sub-genres, but it’s a testament to their chops that pretty much all the tracks on Hold It In hold interest in their own right, and not solely because they’re sandwiched between contrasts.
In fact, Hold It In recalls the excellent Stag in its effortless eclecticism, and if there’s one criticism of the album, it’s that, even with its variety, its sounds and styles can’t help but echo its sibling from 1996 and also most of the other albums at the more diverse end of the Melvins spectrum (e.g., Honky and Hostile Ambient Takeover). However, before I dare expand on the charge that The Melvins have been collaborating with so many third parties as of late (e.g. Big Business, Trevor Dunn, Jello Biafra, Lustmord) because they’ve possibly run out of new ideas, and before I dare suggest that the individuality they cultivated in response to particular contexts (i.e., the metal of the ’80s, then the explosion of grunge) has become an irrelevant pose/habit/routine now that these contexts have disappeared and the world has largely caught up with the band, it should simply be stated that Hold It In is one of the best Melvins albums of the 21st century. It’s much more of a return to their batty roots than last year’s Tres Cabrones (which featured original drummer Matt Dillard), and it exploits the intersection of two pedigrees to produce something that’s consistently more than the mere sum of its parts, despite not quite being the unmitigated orgy of madness you would’ve possibly hoped for when it came to a Melvins-Butthole Surfers crossover. As King Buzzo howls on “Bride of Crankenstein,” “I don’t respect the thoughts of minions,” and on Hold It In, he and his new cohorts prove once again that they certainly aren’t minions themselves.