By Steve Jansen Photos by Luke Holwerda
Better than: A wet dream
I don’t know what it is, but I have a sick obsession with Japanese noise/punk music. Like, a for-real manic obsession bordering on a permanent stay in a padded cell at the loony bin.
I think the fixation started when I discovered John Zorn’s Naked City in the ’90s. Mind you, the sick-o group was made up by a bunch of maniacal white dudes (Zorn, Joey Baron, Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, Fred Firth), but it’s Yamatsuka Eye’s Tasmanian Devil timbre on select LPs that speak to my inner weird-o. Plus, I love that Eye’s inaudible, wordless vocals are backed by an anything-goes, straitjacket-esque ensemble.
As a result, I nearly cream myself in anticipation whenever bands like Japanese action comic book group Peelander-Z or noise-rock band Melt-Banana, who performed Hollywood Alley for the second time this year, come to town. (Yes, they are that good. Come pun intended, BTW.)
For the Melt-Banana (MxBx) virgin, the Tokyo-based group has been around since ’92, and has released eight full-length albums and 23 EPs. The gender-equal foursome (two women, two men) forever tour the States and the U.K., mostly because they don’t get much love in their home country. Instead, they attract a dedicated following here, myself included.
Monday’s set began with lead vocalist Yasuko Onuki carrying a gigantic fake tarantula on stage while bassist Rika mm’, electric guitarist Ichirou Agata, and stickman Oshima took their places. The first tune featured sampled sounds of barking dogs before MxBx detonated into “1.21 gigawatts” of energy. (Remember Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future?) Onuki’s vocal pyrotechnics were a perfect complement to the blistering “rhythm section,” and Agata’s pedal-modified guitar shreds, which reminded me of the sound FX on that old Atari game Asteroids, hopped up on speed.
Melt-Banana singer Yasuko Onuki and her giant tarantula.
Throughout the eve’s performance, the music vacillated between noise and punk with elements of rock and free jazz (my other, more frenzied sonic obsession). Freakazoid compositions, comped by hyperactive vocals and tenacious drum accompaniment, were the norm. When Agata decided to get noisy with his concussion-inducing pedal effects, it never felt over-the-top or like I was watching some lame-o, droning noise band.
Guitarist Ichirou Agata has some sick pedal effects.
Standard to MxBx’s performances is a series of rapid fire songs. Tonight, the first tune’s duration lasted maybe a minute and a half. The final five cuts ranged from 4-15 seconds in length, with Onuki announcing each in her girlish speaking voice. (I couldn’t catch any of the song titles.)
The insane level of intensity would last for 50 continuous minutes. I’ve seen MxBx before and watching them again reminded me that part of the pleasure is this powerful force. There’s no gimmicky stage antics or arbitrary visual effects, though it’s a trip to see Rika mm’ -- who stands at maybe 4 ft. 8” with legs spread eagle -- play the shit out of her bass.
There’s no way that the clinical, sterile environs of a recording studio can capture these highly-recommended live sets. I own a couple of their vinyls, include Cell-Scape, and honestly, they’re almost unlistenable -- not for the production quality or anything like that, but because it’s like hearing a MxBx imposter.
Melt-Banana: Nothing like 'em live.
Overall, there aren’t any publicity stunts with these cats. Yeah, the human-sized hairy arachnid was a nice eccentric touch and the band name is quite infectious, but there’s nothing else about the group that screams “sideshow.” (For example, how many of you can honestly say that you’ve seen Gwar for the music and not the circus?)
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Pure and simple, Melt-Banana knows how to assault their instruments without raping the listener’s eardrums.
Random fact: One of my friend’s who went with me (a New Times freelancer) made the following comment during MxBx’s encore: “My butt loves Melt Banana.” It was a positive sentiment. I think?
Personal bias: I love listening to screaming women, Onuki included.