‘Positive pop melody is pushed to the fore’ on Melt-Banana‘s Fetch ‘and the results are pretty damn infectious,’ says MacDara Conroy
Grindcore is the future,” I’ve joked to my friends for years. But I’ve always half-believed in it, and the one reason that kept my faith alive is Melt-Banana – the Japanese noise-rock group with an equal-opportunity line-up (two guys, two gals) and a relatively neutral appearance (apart from maybe the guitarist’s surgical mask) but with a crazy sound that appealed to the fringes of rock fandom, noise heads and grind freaks alike. The splatter-gun attack of their early records – sonic collages of blastbeats, myriad guitar effects, rattling bass and chirpy yelps in broken English, interspersed with Minutemen-short bursts of energy – built up via a torrent of split singles and LPs to 2000’s Teeny Shiny, a restlessly inventive grindcore-pop hybrid and a vision of what chart music might – no, must – sound like in the future.
It’s probably inevitable that such newfound sounds would come from Japan, a cultural Borg that assimilates everything in its path and spits it back out still vaguely recognisable but utterly deformed. Japan is also the kind of place where a sickly-sweet pop group can not only collaborate with a legendary noise act but make a whole album that’s sold in actual shops (look up ‘Biskaidan’ on YouTube; it’s mad). Yet strangely enough Melt-Banana have always fared better with US and European audiences, though surely to us much of their appeal is their sheer otherness. Like previous 21st-century long-players Bambi’s Dilemma (2007) and Cell-Scape (2003), new album Fetch provides plenty of recognisable hooks to grab onto, yet the whole still resembles field recordings of a pachinko parlour massacre.
Speaking of which, the new one’s centrepiece is an actual field recording of frog croaks as water streams peacefully in the background (recorded at Tokushima in western Japan). It’s the eye of a musical hurricane – or maybe whirlpool is a better metaphor, as Fetch continues the subaquatic tendencies in their sound since Cell-Scape, the sonar bleeps and basslines that burble rather than rattle. That low-end now comes via computer since the departure of long-time bassist Rika, with guitarist Agata taking over programming her parts along with the drums, samples and effects he’s handled for the last decade. Yako, meanwhile, is still Yako, and it’s a comfort to hear her distinctive voice spit out the semi-random lyrics to ‘Candy Gun’, another typically MxBx high-energy cut-up punk-pop chimera. Ditto most of the 12 tracks here, which could be mixed up with any from the previous two records – over a 10-year span, no less – and you’d be none the wiser. In a different circumstance that might be a damning criticism, but in this case familiarity breeds affection. Fetch is the Melt-Banana we know and love, despite the band being stripped back to a duo, and that’s a good thing.
It’s also the first record they’ve done since the devastating earthquake of 2011, an event that might account for the few new elements here that stand out – like the aforementioned frog chorus interlude, a getting-back-to-nature that contrasts with the decidedly urban futurism of their music, and the unabashed dance number ‘Zero’ that closes the record. There’s still plenty of raw aggression blended with kawaii cuteness – the likes of ‘Red Data, Red Stage’ rage as hard as anything they’ve ever done – but there’s nothing as frantic as the sampler and theremin abuse experiments that distinguished the latter half of Bambi’s Dilemma (and the follow-up curio Melt-Banana Lite Live). If anything, positive pop melody is pushed to the fore, even on the harder-edged tracks, and the results are pretty damn infectious.