Tokyo's Melt-Banana -- two guys and two girls in their late 20s -- defies traditional definitions of speedcore, avant-metal terror, or even Japanoise. Naturally, that hasn't stopped niche-makers from branding the band with all those labels over the course of its 10-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.
With diminutive female vocalist Yasuko Onuki yelping hysterically over jagged peals of guitar and a flurry of blast beats, Melt-Banana sounds the way a root canal feels. Still, the band's approach is a bit more structured than the free-for-all caterwaul of its scenemates in the Boredoms and Zeni Geva. While much of Japanese hardcore comes off as a deafening, unbounded din, Melt-Banana grounds the bedlam in songs that are at least halfway discernible --meaning that you can comprehend this band's fury, instead of simply being bushwhacked by it.
In the live setting, though, Melt-Banana often loses control. At a gig a few years back, 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 jackhammers during ferocious songs that varied in length between 10 seconds and a minute and a half; 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 hanging open in a silent howl.
Melt-Banana has worn out many a drummer. Though Ichiro, 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 limits, but Onuki does not see their physical limitations as an impregnable boundary. "Human limits can get bigger," she declares via e-mail from a tour stop somewhere in Arizona. "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, ultra-kinetic performances? "I have got some cracked teeth, only," she writes.
It's unlikely that singing cracked her teeth, but it must at least cause trouble for her vocal cords. 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 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 band's sixth full-length comes out in July, but until then, the foursome is playing a lot of material off its Teen Shiny LP, released 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 more than 28 minutes long, it contained 36 songs. Teen Shiny itself runs less than half an hour, but stretches out its 11 songs. 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 style, albeit with a more melodic bent.
The band's second album, 1995's Speak Squeak Creak, is probably its most infamous release. Co-produced by famed Japanoise guitarist-vocalist K.K. Null and acclaimed Chicago engineer Steve Albini, the album features 24 tracks, closing with a 25th on which all the previous two dozen tunes were transferred onto a single track of a 24-track tape and re-recorded 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. It is fun."