Home Music Revisit: Melvins: Hostile Ambient Takeover

Revisit: Melvins: Hostile Ambient Takeover

Twenty years ago, the Melvins seemed unstoppable. The already legendary Gods of Thunder – a trio that’s one part Buzz Osborne, one part Dale Crover and, after signing with Ipecac Recordings, featured a bottom-end then being held down by Cows alum Kevin Rutmanis – had just completed its four-part “trilogy,” releasing the cantankerous Colossus of Destiny after earlier gems like The Maggot and The Crybaby. So, what did they do after they entered the studio for the first time with Toshi Kasai, who would go on to record the group repeatedly and become a fan favorites and regular in the band’s stable? They re-wrote the narrative and one-upped everybody. Of fucking course.

Hostile Ambient Takeover, sometimes known lovingly as HAT, roared with brilliant sound and fury, and was a mighty beast right from its 2002 street release. Since the early George W. Bush years – shiver shiver! – it has aged like fine wine or a nice, graceful bourbon, maturing far better than other period experiments like 2001’s Electroretard. (Or, y’know, 1994’s, um, acquired-taste of Prick.) Listen to “Black Stooges” or “The Brain Center at Whipples” on HAT in 2021 and, swear to Lorax, they sound just as engaging and venomous as when they were first cut to magnetic tape all those years ago.

An eight-song affair that ends with the patience-testing “The Anti-Vermin Seed,” the Melvins’ 14th album is a bit of a departure. The band, yes yes, had released great, even classic records by 2002 – the grungy Houdini, the dirgy and mesmerizing Bullhead, the oddly nuanced post-metal of Stoner Witch. But Hostile Ambient Takeover took things a step or two further with colors and tones the band hadn’t previously captured. For one, Rutmanis was truly masterful at the slide-bass, a new addition to the trio’s oeuvre, and the caterwaul and angularity of the instrument lent an edge, maybe even a slightly rambunctious one, to King Buzzo’s distortion-drenched lead guitar and Crover’s tribal pounding.

But there was more than that. By 2002, the group had grown in countless ways since it left major Atlantic Records in the late ‘90s. “Foaming” and “The Fool, The Meddling Idiot,” both of which take time to beautifully unfurl themselves, hint at the Melvins’ then-growing association with Tool and its prog-minded form of post-metal. The roar that kicks off “Black Stooges” and its untitled supplement – after the killer drum measures, of course – reference Buzzo’s work with Mike Patton and company in Fantomas. And I dare anyone to listen to the distortion-less guitar master class that is “Dr. Geek” and not be moved to ecstatic ranting or tears with joy. The thing has all of the sheer velocity of a surf-rock classic and all the rage that makes the Melvins’ brand of punk-metal so enthralling in the first place. It’s plain fun to hear – a modifier that would have been difficult to apply to the Melvins back in the late ‘80s.

Though each song fits the effort of the day like so many goddamned puzzle pieces, there are, in hindsight, some areas of Hostile Ambient Takeover that could have been tightened, edited, or chopped up a bit. Sure, sure, we are advocates for the winding paths of epic narratives but, at more than 16 minutes, the record’s closing song definitely tests your willingness to go the distance. (The also-lengthy close of “Foaming” could be mentioned in this breath, too.) But elsewhere, there’s great and unexpected touches – like the glowing synths that appear in the sixth and seventh minute of “The Fool, The Meddling Idiot” or the way Crover yells to Kasai “That’s it! That’s it, fucker!” after the closing drum fills of “Dr. Geek.” Rutmanis’ slide work casts a spell over Osborne’s rubbery guitar leads on “Little Judas Chongo;” the way time kind of warps and bends with the lynching bass on “Foaming” is addictive.

The Melvins, of course, went on to and have kept on doing great things, joining the Big Business team as a vicious quartet and pairing, most recently, with Redd Kross’ Steve McDonald, who seems to suit their temperament well. But have they sounded as great since 2002 as they do on Hostile Ambient Takeover? Verdict’s out and the band clearly still has a lot of gas in the tank. But, man, this baby’s tight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Holy Hell! Standards Turns 20

The fourth LP by Tortoise came with massive and heightened expectations – and met them hea…