Review: Melt-Banana at Middle East Downstairs

Melt-Banana, live at Middle East Downstairs, November 24, 2009
By CARRIE BATTAN  |  December 1, 2009

Photo: Catherine Lee
Melt-Banana at Middle East downstairs, Nov. 24. 2009

For the unfamiliar, trying to figure out what's going on at a Melt-Banana live show is sort of like trying to transcribe the gibberish conversations of your characters in The Sims. It's really confusing and unproductive. 

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The Japanoise act -- who've been churning out grinding, experimental albums consistently for almost two decades -- came to defrag our brains at the Middle East downstairs Tuesday night, alongside Salem metal act Captain Cutthroat and the ultra-weird/borderline unlistenable Exusamwa (pronounced "excusez-moi"). The tour follows the November 3 release of Melt-Banana Lite Live Ver 0.0, a live album that trades neuron-scrubbing guitars for the digital squall of experimental samples and synths, and honors the moniker the band occasionally performs under, Melt-Banana Lite.

But there was absolutely nothing "lite" about the first 20 minutes of Tuesday's show: frontwoman Yasuko Onuki cued up the set shrouded in complete darkness -- save for the LED cave lights strapped to each band member's forehead -- and unleashed a swirling, ominous block of incomprehensible, vocals-free grindcore into the near-packed house. Instead of simulating a frantic Japanese arcade, as the band's latest and most accessible full-lengths have tended toward, the first portion of last night's show felt like being aboard some rickety-ass rollercoaster in the middle of nowhere, screechily climbing its 500-foot incline before making a potentially fatal vertical drop.

And drop the show did, for better or worse. The little cave lights came off in favor of bigger, brighter ones after about 20 minutes, and Onuki eventually transitioned into some of the "liter" material from Cell Scape and Bambi's Dilemma. The guitar and bass were brought out and the band's standard punk-influenced noise began to emerge in short spurts -- I think I might have detected a hint of a melody during one song. The mosh pit was even replaced by what could only be an ironic Kumbaya-style clap-a-long for maybe 30 seconds.

Once the shock of the initial plunge into Melt-Banana's live performance wore off, the Middle East was left with what distinguishes a casual fan or innocent bystander from one of the way-too-into-it shirtless dancers in the front row: 40 minutes of an experimental Japanese noise show. For the die-hards who are able to decode the nuances of Onuki's ceaseless animal-like yelps, the remainder of the set was a thrilling display of the talent of one of noise's premiere and longest-standing acts. But for the rest of us, who'd just as soon prefer "Melt-Banana Lite" to sound more like Ponytail instead of the Locust, it's a reminder of how such avant-garde fare can quickly lose its spark despite its mind-bogglingly high voltage.

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