Turning Japanese

Melt-Banana brings bubblegum punk from Tokyo to Tucson.

For what it's worth and although it's unfair to generalize, few musicians seem to do noise-rock better than the Japanese. For evidence of the superiority of so-called "Japanoise," simply turn an ear to artists as diverse as the Boredoms, Fushitsusha, Keiji Haino, Merzbow, K.K. Null, Ruins, Avalanche and Otomo Yoshihide.

But sometimes such music contains depressing elements of goth metal and an overall darkness that can weigh heavily on the spirit. Tokyo-based noise-punk band Melt-Banana, on the other hand, drops aggressive sound bombs with a glee that seems light and joyful.

Although he meant it in a dismissive manner, an Internet detractor recently nailed the band's sound with the apt description: "Bubblegum pop version of Napalm Death," which sounds like a compliment to these ears.

Hold onto your hats, noise fans, because Melt-Banana will return to Tucson to play a gig Sunday night at Club Congress.

Melt-Banana appeared last year at Solar Culture. And although the show reportedly wasn't well attended, raves were heard from the various representatives of Tucson's music cognoscenti who actually showed. The band apparently was so hot, eyebrows were singed and eardrums blistered.

When asked in a telephone interview last week for the secret to Melt-Banana's wild, energized performances, singer Yasuko Onuki, who usually just goes by "Yako," was shy and diplomatic.

"We always try to enjoy ourselves fully so that we can express our feelings in music, and so the audience can enjoy themselves, too," she said in heavily accented English, calling from a pay phone somewhere on the East Coast.

Formed eight years ago, Melt-Banana came together when the original four members were all students at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Of the original four members, three remain: vocalist Yako; surgical-mask-wearing guitarist Ichiro Agata; and bassist Rika Chang (aka Rika mm').

After a few changes in drummers over its history, the band is using Dave Witte, of the New Jersey grind-core band Burnt By the Sun, for its current American tour. Witte also played on a recent Melt-Banana tour of Europe.

Of the pinch-hitting percussionist, Yako said, "He's been one of our friends for a long, long time. He is one of our favorite drummers, so it is great to have him play with us. In Japan, we have other drummers play with us."

Melt-Banana has released six albums since 1994, as well as various singles and EPs, on the A-Zap label. Its latest and most melodic is Teeny Shiny. The 2000 disc clocks in at only 25 minutes, which was something of a disappointment to fans of the group.

Yako said that album's follow-up has been held up. "Well, we wanted to have it finished before we did this tour, but we were ... I think the word is delayed. So maybe next year it will be out."

But perhaps the group's finest recording is MxPx1998/13,000 Miles at Light Velocity, which was recorded live in a New Jersey studio in 1998 and released by saxophonist and composer John Zorn's boutique label, Tzadik Records.

During the album's most engaging moments--such tunes as "Sick Zip Everywhere," "Disposable Weathercock," "Mind Thief" and "It's in the Pillcase"--Melt-Banana rides the crest of a funky, elastic punk-metal squall that, for lack of a better word, swings wickedly.

Certainly, the credo of "loud, hard, fast rules" is valid in the Melt-Banana camp, but the band keeps things interesting with stop-on-a-dime dynamics and hairpin-curve tempo changes, as well as what some critics have called "sound-shapes" in the tradition of Varèse and Messiaen and other such avant-garde composers.

Mention influences such as avant-garde, jazz, metal and pop, and Yako is typically modest: "We like to think we are kind of punk."

There's no doubt the band also loves pop music--among their favorite covers are the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA," the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" and Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge."

Yako said the other band members are into hardcore and punk. Among her favorites are hip-hop acts Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, Gravediggaz, as well as classic French chansons.

Melt-Banana--the members of which are all in their late 20s--is playing its sixth American tour. The group loves the diversity of music available in the United States, Yako said.

And although they don't get time for much sightseeing, the band members are especially enthusiastic about hobnobbing with their stateside fans. "It feels good for us just to meet new people at our shows and play our music for them," Yako said.

"We have tried to write the music that we wanted to listen to, so we hope that it is the music that our audience wants to listen to."