Walter's on Washington
November 29, 2007
Better Than: Anything made in America.
Download: "Chain Shot to Have Some Fun," available free from the Melt-Banana Web site
Melt-Banana, a Japanese band prone to covering Devo and the Beach Boys and fronted by a tiny woman who sings like a Smurf, are quite possibly the world's least threatening grindcore band. For that reason, they are one of the most important acts in American underground music, even if they do live halfway around the world. Over the past 15 years, Melt-Banana have played a crucial role in bridging the gap between the twee open-mindedness of college radio and the thrilling violence of underground hardcore, slowly training an audience that would understand aggressive, weird, brilliant bands like Deerhoof, Lightning Bolt and the Blood Brothers.
I first saw Melt-Banana in 1999 at the Metropol. They blew my mind. I saw them again at Mary Jane's in 2002 and 2003 at two of the best rock shows I've ever seen. After the 2003 show I bought their album Cell-Scape and spent an entire day entranced by its raging, groovy cyberpunk hardcore. The band was at their peak then, and Cell-Scape was the most focused and exciting album they'd ever made - and yet, in rare agreement with Pitchfork Media, I thought the band's apotheosis was still to come.
Photos by John Van
Melt-Banana vocalist Yasuko Onuki
Four years went by without a new studio album. Then Bambi's Dilemma came out in 2007, which I discovered when my band the Jonx was asked to open their show at Numbers in May. It was not an apotheosis. It was not as good as Cell-Scape. It was not as good as 2000's Teeny Shiny, or probably even 1998's Charlie, which would make it the worst Melt-Banana album in a decade. And maybe because I was tired, maybe because it was Numbers - maybe because their straightforward cover of Blondie's "Heart of Glass" was quite frankly sort of boring - the show that we opened was the worst Melt-Banana show I'd ever seen. So in part, I went to Walter's last night in an effort to find out if the band that blew me away eight years ago was still worth watching.
The show being billed at 9, I reckoned that a "rock-n-roll 9" (i.e. 9:25 p.m.) would put me in good shape to catch local noise act Cop Warmth, who recently have seemed to be everywhere at once. It turns out that the reason for this is that they move very quickly: apparently they showed up around 9 and finished playing by 9:20. Let them not be accused of wearing out their welcome.
Not that any band can really be said to rock compared to Melt-Banana. What I found out was that they are indeed still worth seeing. It makes a difference to get them out of a cavernous club like Numbers and into a dive bar, where they are closer to the audience. But they also just played better. Moreover, they seemed to agree that Cell-Scape holds up better than the new material, closing with unprintably badass performances of two songs from that album, "Lost Parts Stinging Me So Cold" and "A Dreamer Who Is Too Weak To Face Up To," as well as the roaring "Phantasmagoria/ A Shield for Your Eyes" for an encore. Even "Heart of Glass" fared better this time, thanks to some comical pounding during the verses.
Melt-Banana guitarist Ichirou Agata
Melt-Banana still look young, but they aren't as much as they used to be. The band started in 1992, which suggests that the three core members are at least 35, and probably closer to 40. They used to explode into motion at the beginning of a show, but now it takes them a few minutes to get warmed up. Once they do, though, they're as kinetic as ever, thrashing, bouncing and banging frantically. Melt-Banana are living proof that punk rock isn't just something kids do when they have too much time on their hands; for some people, it's a way of life. If you really love it, it's not something that you have to grow out of. It's gratifying to see that and to feel the power of the music again.
But the first time I saw Melt-Banana, they closed with a Dadaist version of Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" that brilliantly underscored the riff while satirizing the song itself. The second time I saw them, the audience practically begged for a second encore, and the band delivered a blistering cover of the Who's "My Generation." Nothing like that happened last night. No artist improves indefinitely. It may be that Melt-Banana has done their best work already, just as the Melvins and Nomeansno did their best work fifteen years ago; and for me, it may be that every Melt-Banana performance in the future will seem like echo of a revelation that has already passed by.
"Phantasmagoria/ A Shield for Your Eyes, A Beast in the Well on Your Hand" from an unidentified 2006 performance.
Personal Bias: I learned to play grindcore by listening to Dave Witte, the American drummer who played on Cell-Scape.
Random Detail: Melt-Banana vocalist Yasuko Onuki took the stage carrying a giant fake tarantula; guitarist Ichirou Agata always wears a surgical mask onstage, supposedly to control nosebleeds.
By the way: If anyone can remember the band that opened for Melt-Banana at the Metropol, please leave a comment telling me who it was. – Daniel Mee