Guardian Addendum: Melt-Banana, “The Hive”

On this week’s “New Music From Around The World” on The Guardian, I introduced a track off of Melt-Banana’s new album Fetch called “The Hive”.  The track is indeed excellent, particularly the heavily-processed sounding mid-section, which in some ways is a sound we’ve never really heard from the band before.  It’s bookended by the hyper-kinetic hardcore that we’ve come to expect from them, but it’s one of the examples on the new album is a band hitting a new peak and moving forward.  With more a focus on samples and beats, they’ve certainly changed a lot from their early days of Speak Squeak Creak.  There’s way more to Fetch than just “The Hive” however, and I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about the album as a whole.

It’s been the week of MxBx (as they’re known by fans) for me, with an interview I helped out with on the Japan Times, and the post on The Guardian.  The album is Melt-Banana’s first studio album in 6 years – their last album, Bambi’s Dilemma, was released in 2007.  They’ve obviously been releasing things in between, although they didn’t really receive the attention the new album has been getting, which has already been picked up by Spin, reviewed on Pitchfork, and introduced by countless other media outlets.

A lot’s changed since 2007.  The band went through numerous drummers (as they always have since the mid-90s), did a side-project (called Melt-Banana Lite), ran over a deer (while on tour in America), released a studio live album (as Melt-Banana Lite) and an EP, endured a major earthquake and nuclear melt-down (along with the rest of Japan), before finally in 2012 decided to become a duo with a drum machine.

The drum machine thing has taken a lot of people aback, but I can assure you that their live show is just as stunning as ever.  I go see the band quite often, and it’s been interesting seeing their live set change over the past year, as they tried various forms of presentation and ways to manipulate the sound.  Their current set consists of Agata on guitar, as usual, and vocalist Yako using a handheld controller which triggers the backing tracks.  This allows the band to manipulate the tracks rather than simply play along to them – a big difference.

Having samples and electronic elements is nothing new for the band though.  Signs of it started showing up on 2000s Teeny Shiny, and it was basically at the fore on 2003s Cell-Scape, an album many fans will attest as being the group’s best work.  You could say that Fetch is the culmination of everything they’ve done since Cell-Scape, with everything they’ve done in the last decade – including becoming a duo – all sort of coming into place.  It’s the work of a band who have come out the other side after going through a series of challenges, both musically and personally.

I’ve noticed that a lot of noise is being made about the album’s closing track, “Zero”, which calls to mind another “Zero” by a group which I’m sure has a lot of respect for Melt-Banana.  It’s certainly a surprising track; they’ve done similar sing-songy songs before, like the last track on Cell-Scape, “If It Is The Deep Sea, I Can See You There” (their titles sure have gotten simpler over the years).  But I think “Zero” evokes emotions never felt before on a Melt-Banana track – feelings of almost nostalgia and yearning for times long past, and also a sense of optimism for the future.

I’ve always seen Melt-Banana as a futurist/retro-future band, so this all makes sense.  I think the cool thing about the track and Fetch is that they suggest both a band who has become comfortable – through all their wisdom and longevity – of slowing down a bit, willing to take us along for a ride, and a world who has finally, sort of, maybe, caught up with these crazy cats from Tokyo. 

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