Melt-Banana Plow Through Into The Future

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Melt-Banana played a show at Roppongi’s Super Deluxe at the end of last month. I managed to swing by to catch their set, which was a bill that also included Kyoto’s Limited Express (has gone?), Tokyo locals Milla and the Geeks, and American band Moon Duo.

Anyone with an interest in Japanese indie rock will have come across the name Melt-Banana. Alongside names like Boredoms, Boris, and Mono, Melt-Banana have gained recognition overseas as one of Japanese noise rock’s finest acts, with artists and personalities such as Tool, Lou Reed, and John Peel being some of their more vocal supporters.

Melt-Banana – “Shield For Your Eyes, A Beast In The Well Of Your Hand” (live)

Why am I writing about Melt-Banana now? Because the band is currently in an interesting transitional period, one that is causing some chatter and division among fans. The band, currently consisting only of vocalist Yako and guitarist Agata, have recently eschewed the traditional four-piece rock band format of vocals, guitar, bass,and drums in favor of being a stripped down duo backed by a ferocious backing track.

First, a bit of history: people familiar with the band will remember that the band briefly did a similar stint a few years ago, christening themselves Melt-Banana Lite. That version of the band had live drums (provided by support drummer Inomata) and no guitars – just samples and effects, and of course, Yako’s vocals. The reaction was seemingly mixed to say the least. While as noisy as ever, Melt-Banana Lite just wasn’t the Melt-Banana people were coming to see. This incarnation released a live album in 2010 (or, it was as “live” as the album the band released off of John Zorn’s Tzadik label more than 15 years ago). The album was an interesting hit and miss effort, but it did offer a glimpse of what was coming.

Along with the live album, the band also had released a 3-song EP, Initial T., which sounded more similar to the material found on their latest studio album, Bambi’s Dilemma, albeit with a bit of an electronica twist. While the band has had drum machines on their records for a while now (they’ve never explicitly have admitted it, but I suspect it’s been like that since 2003’s Cell-Scape, the EP and the Melt-Banana Lite record tended to be focused on beats and loops more so than their previous works.

The band hasn’t exactly had its luck with drummers.  Original drummer Toshiaki Sudoh left after Scratch or Stitch, who was then replaced by Masaki Oshima, who appears on Teeny Shiny.  Oshima left in the late 90s to focus on his activities as Watchman (he has since worked with people such as Narasaki of Coaltar of the Deepers in electronica project Sadesper Record) and the band has had a steady rotation of supporting drummers ever since, including Eiji Uki of Mania Organ and Acid Mothers Temple, and Dave Witte of American grindcore band Discordance Axis.  Inomata, who played on the Melt-Banana Lite album, left some time in 2011, and the band continued on playing with several more support drummers for a while afterwards, until finally in the middle of 2012 they began playing as a duo, which they have being doing since.

“Feedback Deficiency” from Melt-Banana Lite Live: ver 0.0

The show on Friday featured a synchronized VJ set; a welcome addition. Admittedly, part of the fun of watching Melt-Banana play was to see the crazy drummer in the back and the interaction of the four people on stage. A duo with a drum machine fundamentally has less eye-candy than an actual band, so setting up a VJ projection is a smart idea, and hopefully they’ll refine it and integrate it more into their performance.

The current style brings to light the age-old debate of a rock band using drum machines; how much a band can get away with in terms of pre-programmed instrumentation? Speaking to some people after the show, the answer varied from “a whole lot” to “not so much”.

What a lot of people seem to be having a problem with is the fact that what Melt-Banana are doing right now isn’t something that is expected from a band like them, or just bands in general. A friend of mine at the show observed while watching Moon Duo that a band like them would never be able to get away with what they were doing in Tokyo: a two piece band with backing tracks, with visual aide from a VJ. He has a point; Japan is often praised for its integration and mixing of various genres and sounds, but the truth is that many genres are segregated. Sure, you’ll find noise rock bands together with indie rock bands together with pop bands, but there’s a certain “crossover line” that, once you go across, you tend to get the cold shoulder from the community.

There’s also the whole, “that’s not how things are done here” attitude, which is quite prevalent within the indie scene. Melt-Banana are sort of notorious in the community for being lone wolves. In a scene where bands go up the ladder by drinking with their mates and sucking up to the older crowd, following a strict formula and social structure, Melt-Banana have sort of adamantly stood their ground, instead deciding to tour relentlessly abroad and by collaborating with more offbeat artists.

Of course, a drum machine will never replace an actual drummer (perhaps much to the chagrin of many guitarists out there), but with a band like Melt-Banana this argument seems to be besides the point. As stated earlier, the drums on their albums have almost been exclusively programmed for more than half of their career. The truth is, the band gets away with a lot in their current incarnation, and it will only get better as they play more shows and refine their sound.

I’m excited with what these guys will come up with next. Clearly, the band is still working out the kinks. But by the time they’re ready to tour and have a new album out, I think we will see something really fantastic (at the very least sonically interesting). You can never call out a band who are willing to reinvent themselves. In Melt-Banana’s case, it seems to be as much of an artistic statement as it is an act of survival; these guys are in the game only for themselves, not caring what anyone else thinks of them. And that to me, is probably the most punk rock thing a band can do.

Melt-Banana live on “We Have Signal”

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