To turn an ironic phrase, the thing that grunge outsiders Melvins and Butthole Surfers had most in common was that neither seemed to have anything in common with anybody. They were weirdos producing heavy music with a sardonic edge, occasionally at odds with their peers. So, to see the two permanent bastards at the helm of Melvins (guitarist/vocalist Buzz Osborne and drummer Dale Crover) usher two members of the Buttholes (guitarist Paul Leary and bassist J.D. Pinkus) through their revolving door of collaborators for Hold It In isn’t all that surprising. The surprise is that it’s one of their most accessible, diverse albums, rather than one that dives headlong into the experimental noise and sludge both bands have championed.
It’s been a long time since Osborne and Crover dropped the massive, weighty song that gave Japanese rockers Boris their name, but they haven’t exactly been dabbling in yacht rock since then. Though it’s certainly not their heaviest, Hold It In doesn’t sound like a Cars album, either — though at times a highly overdriven, smirking version. It opens with the dark chug of “Bride of Crankenstein”, the jokey title and thunderous guitar riff bringing to mind a sludgier Alice Cooper. Following that with “You Can Make Me Wait”, though, is like spinning the dial to a different late ’70s radio station. Sung through a glossy vocoder, played on crystalline guitars, and featuring lovelorn lyrics, the track should be a sore thumb in the Melvins catalog, but it’s still great for what it is. That dichotomy runs through Hold It In as it jumps to unexpected places without a net and improbably sticks the landings.
One of the key reasons Melvins have kept fresh over their 30-year career is their collaborative zeal. They reunited with founding drummer Mike Dillard for last year’s self-aware and impishly fun Tres Cabrones and upright bassist Trevor Dunn for Melvins Lite, as well as teaming with members of Big Business for nearly a decade. But that fresh air gusts a bit stronger than usual on Hold It In. Leary even gets sole songwriting credit on three tracks and takes lead vocal duties on a few as well. Chalking up “You Can Make Me Wait” to the fact that it was written by a non-Melvin, then, would seem to make everything a lot easier. But later, the harmonized vocals and guitar bounce of “Brass Cupcake” come straight from the pens of Osborne, Crover, and Pinkus. This song in particular (and Hold It In in general) stands as strong evidence of Melvins’ well-documented “special connection” to KISS.
A key to uniting the two halves of the album — the approachable brush with pop and the riff-heavy, slow-burning side — is another Leary tune, “Eyes on You”. The mutated pop rocker bobs by smoothly, but the twisted group vocals about the NSA and the modern spy society (“They know you can’t fight back/ They got that PATRIOT Act/ Their drones are in the air/ Their eyes are everywhere”) dig into a dark place. Similarly, “Onions Make the Milk Taste Bad” opens with familiar Melvins menace, but lurches back to life after an open-air linger, with Leary’s guitar accents and Pinkus’ thrumming bass zombifying the production. “Sesame Street Meat” sharpens its teeth on Pinkus’ whetstone bass, perhaps the most familiarly sludgy track of the bunch.
Though none of these experiments fails outright, a few meander in the fog before they land that Melvins punch. “Barcelonian Horseshoe Pit” spends a long four minutes in a psychedelic soup. The middle chunk of “The Bunk Up” features a xylophone, of all things. The demented twang of “I Get Along (Hollow Moon)” fits the Melvins like a too-large cowboy hat (maybe 13 gallons in all rather than 10), an entertaining detour that wanders down the dusty trail without a destination. The track, both written and sung by Leary, represents a potential sticking point for the slate of collaboration-heavy Melvins records of the last decade or so: Osborne and Crover are spicing it up in the studio and having fun first and foremost. While that translates on some songs, it can sound distancing to those wanting another Houdini.
Hold It In pushes Melvins in new ways largely without sacrificing their mischievous metal heart. This album doesn’t change the Melvins narrative, but it’s certainly enjoyable, big, and full of muscly, headbanging jams. At this point, the only question that remains is who the Melvins will work with on their next album.
Essential Tracks: “Brass Cupcake”, “Eyes on You”, and “Sesame Street Meat”