Tokyo's Melt-Banana -- just two guys and two girls in their late 20s -- defy traditional definitions of speedcore, avant-metal terror, or even Japanoise. Naturally, that hasn't stopped niche-makers from branding the band with such labels over the course of its ten-year life. Though Melt-Banana has achieved much recognition for furious shows that typically become violent to the point of masochism, its performances are actually characterized by precision musicianship mated to monk-like discipline. It's punk. It's art. And it looks like it hurts.
When the quartet visited Miami's Churchill's Hideaway in 1999, guitarist Agata Ichiro let rip dense flurries of surprisingly coherent notes even while slamming his body against the floor. Then-drummer Oshima appeared to endure tremendous pain during his attempt to keep pace with the insane, inhuman tempo generated by his bandmates. His limbs pistoned like biomechanical jackhammers during ferocious songs that varied in length between ten seconds and one-and-a-half minutes; all the while he twisted his face in a contorted squint of agony. After each song, he doubled over and rapidly shook his wrists, his mouth forming an o in a silent howl.
Melt-Banana has worn out many a drummer. Though Ichiro, vocalist Yasuko Onuki, and bassist Rika Hamamoto have stuck around since the band's inception, the drum stool has seated no fewer than five drummers who've come and gone (on this tour, Dave Witte from Discordance Axis fills in). Melt-Banana tends to push musicians to their physical limits, but Onuki does not see the capacity of what their bodies can take as an impregnable boundary. "Human limits can get bigger," she declares via e-mail from somewhere in Arizona while on the group's fifth U.S. tour -- a two-month, single-band journey that stands half-completed. "We, of course, use energy and get tired, but I say many adrenaline come out from our brain, so we don't fall down." Any real danger in their Jackass-style, ultrakinetic performances? "I have got some cracked teeth, only," she writes.
It's unlikely her singing cracked her teeth, but it must at least cause trouble for her vocal chords. Usually, Onuki spits out clipped words at the top of her lungs in a single explosive exhalation. When Ichiro uses a slide to make his guitar sound like a rapid-fire laser weapon, it can become hard to distinguish its terse, screeching sounds from Onuki's voice, unintelligible but delivered with a pronounced Japanese accent.
"Actually, my lyrics are in English," Onuki insists, "and all lyrics are in a booklet of each album, so check out! Anyway, [they're] mostly about what I think and what I saw in my life." She downplays any meaning lost in translation, saying she writes about "anything that I am interested in," which leaves listeners to glean what they will from titles like "Mouse Is a Biscuit," "Bird-like Monkey in Cave, Singing in Drops" and "Chipped Zoo on the Wall, Wastes in the Sky..."
Most of the group's catalog can be located on five-, six-, seven-, eight-, and ten-inch vinyl singles and EPs. Melt-Banana has split sides of records with artists from across the globe, coupling its craziness with material from God Is My Co-Pilot, Discordance Axis, and, most recently, the Locust. The foursome released its last traditional album, Teen Shiny, in 2000.
Teen Shiny reveals the band's steady strides away from the format of its 1994 debut, Cactuses Come in Flocks, an allegedly full-length album: Just barely over 28 minutes long, it contained 36 songs. Teen Shiny is still finished in less than a half-hour but stretches the songs out, amounting to a more reasonable figure of 11. Onuki admits the band has grown more conscious of the need for more deliberately constructed songs. Still, Melt-Banana maintains its punishingly loud, speed-freak character, albeit with a more melodic bent.
Yet it's probably Melt-Banana's second album, 1995's Speak Squeak Creak, that holds the title of its most infamous release. Co-produced by famed Japanoise guitarist/vocalist K.K. Null of Zeni Geva and acclaimed Chicago engineer Steve Albini, the album features 24 tracks, closing with a 25th on which each of the previous two dozen tunes were transferred onto a single track of a 24-track tape and rerecorded simultaneously. In the years after Speak Squeak Creak, the band teamed with the likes of U.S. Maple, Mr. Bungle, and the Red Krayola for live dates, collaborating with Jim O'Rourke and John Zorn in between tours.
Melt-Banana "has learned many things" from collaborations with American musicians over the years, Ichiro says, with Onuki adding, "We usually got many influences from bands whom we play with at each show. If we play with good bands, we can get good influences. And it is fun."
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