What do they sound like? The sort of hallucinogenic Dali-dream the name implies: math-y, deconstructed punk-core, put together in a Beat-heavy cut-up style, strong on the hipster quotient. Quick test: if song names such as "Key is a Fact That a Cat Brings," "Like A White Bat in a Box, Dead Matters Go On," and "Shield For Your Eyes, a Beast in the Well on Your Hand" (from the band's most recent studio album, 2003's Cell-Scape) sound hopelessly pretentious to you, you'll probably be better off checking the club ads elsewhere in this issue for a more conventional band.
Then again, maybe you just like to hear people wail, to witness a primal explosion of the only kind of violence that ultimately helps anything — the uninhibited, raw power of noise rock, the kind of music that colors outside the lines of established art-rock.
In its more than a decade together, Melt-Banana hasn't changed much. Sure, there are some post-rock touches here, a few sung lyrics there, but as exhilarating as the band can be, the music still sounds pretty much the same from disc to disc. Aural self-flagellation only gets you so far, though, and collecting Melt-Banana's studio output is probably only for calculus professors and those who truly are melt-bananas about their experimental hardcore.
Live is where the band sparkles, though like a firecracker detonated just a few feet from your face. This, my friends, is where The Look comes in. On record, vocalist Yasuko O's banshee wails can peel paint, but they work better as iPod wasabi than anything else, cleansing the palate after a few servings of meatier fare. Put her on stage, though, and she makes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O seem tame by comparison.
Same with guitarist Agata. Roller coasters wouldn't seem nearly as cool if you rode them every day, but watching Agata run through his rows of effects pedals like a dervish while rocking a surgical mask (it's for a good reason: he has a bone disorder that causes occasional long-term nosebleeds) has a certain "haven't seen that in a long time — no wait, never!" quality. It certainly increases the intensity of the music.
Finally, the mission statement: Melt-Banana has toured like mad over the last dozen or so years, and has eagerly accepted some relatively high-profile experimental artists as touring partners (Fantomas, Slipknot, Melvins). The band cultivated a relationship with the late John Peel, the legendary BBC DJ who introduced the world to music ranging from the British prog-rock band Soft Machine to Lynyrd Skynyrd (yes, there was a time when they were hip in the UK) to Irish punk rockers the Undertones, right on up to Sonic Youth, Nirvana, PJ Harvey and the cream of post-rock genres like hip-hop, Chicago house and drum 'n' bass. Peel's embrace of Melt-Banana led to the band's sold-out shows in London and across the British Isles. The band has recorded with American indie honchos including Steve Albini and Jim O'Rourke — two producers who are original and edgy enough to give Melt-Banana the credibility to sell records, even to a small, finicky audience not known for launching many Billboard-based success stories.
Has the group grown over the years? Well, they've certainly slowed down. At the beginning of Melt-Banana's career, the band recorded albums containing some 25 songs in almost as many minutes. Subsequent efforts have included anywhere from 10-14 tracks, mainly due to a post-rock fixation that focuses more on impressionistic mood-setting than the shrapnel barrage of the band's earlier output.
"When we started the band we recorded what we do in the live show," Yasuko told The Montreal Mirror of the band's 2000 album Teeny Shiny. "But these days we enjoy working on the other recording-type stuff."
Likewise, the band's song lyrics have moved away from the phonetic-Tourettic tone poems of albums past in favor of quasi-political polemics and near-singalongs (or maybe that's screech-alongs). For evidence of Melt-Banana's evolution, check out the new compilation 13 Hedgehogs (Mxbx Singles 1994-1999).
Melt-Banana's sound is protest in and of itself. It's music that makes you think, whether about the music itself, the nature of art or whether you returned that Lost in Translation DVD. It is music that demands participation; standing on the sidelines just won't do. It is music that makes that you take sides. It is music... or is it music?
Let's just call it the Melt-Banana split.
Melt-Banana plays The Room Tuesday at 10pm. Tickets are $10.