Melt-Banana Brings the Noise With An Army of Hedgehogs

Let's face it: If video killed the radio star, as the Buggles' 1979 anthem presciently forecast, Japanese noise pioneers Hijokaidan and Keiji Haino should have presided over the burial rites, with a Godzilla movie or Toshio Matsumoto's Funeral Parade of Roses screened on a Jumbotron nearby. In a more just world, Hanatarash, Yamantaka Eye's edgy first group before he founded the much “safer” but still sublime Boredoms, wouldn't have been as obscure. And Merzbow, the most prolific of all Japanese noise musicians — whose altered name is a play on Kurt Schwitters's Dadaist Merzbau architectonic constructions — would be king of the musical world. In an alternate reality, Melt-Banana's lead singer, Yasuko Onuki, and guitarist, Ichirou Agata, would be household names.

These days, like so many other Japanese experimental noise-rock outfits, Melt-Banana is still an accomplished, relevant working band unafraid of new sonic frontiers. The differences between the group's KK Null-produced, Steve Albini-engineered debut album, Speak Squeak Creak, and its latest effort, the studio album Fetch, are major and highlight the contrast between earlier inaccessibility and later accessibility — manifest originally in the group's more futuristic, less noisy Cell-Scape album. But something Melt-Banana should get more credit for is the high quality of cover songs in its repertoire: Its more in-your-face cover of “Love Song” by The Damned is frankly better than the original while its cover of The Maytals' ska classic “Monkey Man” is hyper and speedy but charming. Another Japanese band named Boris, while covering My Bloody Valentines' “Sometimes,” removed some of the structure from the original, opted for more subdued vocals and actually surpassed it — no small feat given MBV's unofficial status as musically untouchable.

This brings to mind another necessary point: Americans (and perhaps to a lesser extent, Europeans) should stop comparing Japanese noise musicians to American and European musicians unless a cover of the latter's song is involved. For the most part, it's pointless to compare unique Japanese music to the works of experimental American artists like Glenn Branca; comparing Big Black to Melt-Banana makes even less sense. Even comparing Japanese noise musicians to other Japanese noise musicians is tricky and problematic: Masonna sounds nothing like Pain Jerk, and the more digitally enhanced all-women band Nisennenmondai sounds like none of the above. As a recording and touring band, Melt-Banana has outlasted most bands (even many more popular bands) introduced to the public during the early '90s. The group's longevity can be attributed in part to avant-garde guitarist Ichirou Agata's extremely hard-driving, relentless high-tech shredding. If Agata could borrow Guitar Crusher's name for just a little while, that would be cool and also a fitting description.

These days, thanks largely to Agata's fierce playing, Melt-Banana is touring as a duo. In the group's early days, Rika Yamamoto played bass and Toshiaki Sudoh served as drummer. Over the years, a number of drummers have come and gone — including Eiji Uki and former Discordance Axis drummer Dave Witte. Yasuko Onuki, also known as Yako and the sole founder, writer and vocalist of the group, probably came to a mutual decision with Agata to proceed with an invisible rhythm section activated and manipulated by a wireless Numark Orbit DJ controller. Melt-Banana is one of the few bands in the world which can get away with this kind of setup and do it in a manner so successful and mesmerizing the audience forgets there is no live bassist or drummer.

And at this point, if people still can't get past Onuki's chirpy, high-pitched singing voice — which sounds like a happy-angry, shout-singing Chipmunk or Chipette whose stomach is on fire after she drinks Everclear (or Diesel) — maybe they should just stop trying. After two decades of doing it her way, it would be strange to see Onuki (whose speaking voice is much lower) slow the vocals down to the speed of honey-voiced Yukimi Nagano or anyone else's voice, especially since Agata's guitar playing is too fast for that. Onuki is the O-Ren Ishii of noise-rock, and her vocals are actually a breath of fresh air.

When it comes to Agata, a number of discussions on the Internet are devoted solely to how he sets up his rig for live shows. He typically uses a Sunn Beta Lead amplifier, a Gibson SG guitar, and several effects boxes including Lightkeeper Labs' Goatkeeper, a Whammy, and a Fulltone Full-Drive box, among others. Agata, whose solo album Spike was released by John Zorn's Tzadik label, leads a pack of monster Japanese guitarists including one-man band Yoshitake Expe and Nisennenmondai's Masako Takada. These days, Melt-Banana is touring in support of earlier works, the Fetch album and the recent Return of 13 Hedgehogs compilation.

And although no real or imagined hedgehogs like Hibari's hand-poking sidekick named Roll have shown up at recent high-energy Melt-Banana shows, it would be a good idea for the group to hire the Shinjuku street performer featured in the hilarious “Damn Based God: Lil B Possessed A Japanese Lady! (Goes Crazy)” video. She can headbang better than anyone in the mosh pit at a loud Melt-Banana show.

Melt Banana performs with Hot Nerds and Houston's own P.L.X.T.X. tonight at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 8 p.m.
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Ericka Schiche