Here on Forgotten Gems, we’re starting out with a strange one. Japanese noise-rock band Melt-Banana is truly the musical incarnation of Douglas Adams’ Pan-Galactic Gargle-Blaster, and will, by their very nature, likely never achieve any conventional kind of popularity or success. Since the day they formed in 1992, they have set out to make music that will disorient, bewilder, and possibly even terrify the listener with simply ludicrous volumes, harsh and screeching guitar/electronic effects, and a vocal style delivered by frontwoman Yasuko Onuki that I can only describe as a hyperactive cartoon character on at least three different kinds of stimulants. Their 2003 album Cell-Scape, while admittedly “tamer” (if that’s a word that can even be applied to this band) than their frankly horrifying 90’s output, it is still an entire sonic universe away from what the average listener would consider easy-listening, and for that, I just love it.
“Phantasmagoria” starts off the album with a relatively calm and slow ambient intro, but do not let them fool you. Immediately the listener is pummeled in the face by the opening roar of “Shield Your Eyes, a Beast in the Well of Your Hand.” I believe the first couple seconds of this song is a good gauge of whether or not you’ll enjoy the ensuing 30 minutes of barely controlled chaos. If you hate it and it makes your ears bleed, maybe don’t proceed. If you love it and it makes your ears bleed, then boy are you in for a treat. I would be remiss not to bring up frankly how ridiculously awesome Ichirou Agata’s guitar-work is, on this album especially. He gets otherworldly sounds out of his guitar that that defy verbal explanation and practically require hearing firsthand. Seriously, he’s one of my all-time favorite guitarists for a very good reason. The song builds with a hypnotic bassline, hard and robotic drum machine loop, and Agata’s incredible noise-glissandos.
And then the vocals kick in.
Yasuko Onuki’s vocals are the stuff of myth. It is absolutely a “love-it or hate-it” style that takes some getting used to, and are completely different from almost every other vocalist in all of music. I’ve already described her vocals as sounding like a cartoon character on stimulants, but if you haven’t heard it before, you really don’t know what you’re getting into. But I believe that it is her voice that transforms Melt-Banana from a pretty-good but not-so-memorable noise band into the playful, exhilarating and mind-destroying entity we all know and love them as. Her energetic style permeates through the bizarre whirlwinds of songs that are “Chain-Shot to Have Some Fun” and my personal favorite “A Dreamer Who is Too Weak to Face Up.” Every explosion of guitar and drums is accentuated by Onuki’s weirdly cheery-sounding yelps and squawks. Melt-Banana wouldn’t be half of the amazingness that it is without Yasuko Onuki at the helm, and every single song she takes part in is simply a joy to listen to.
Left: Yasuko Onuki. Right: Ichirou Agata. Image source: orlandoweekly.com
This whole album in general is just that: a pure joy. Sure, it’s unyielding, ridiculously loud and harsh, and almost completely inacessible to any mainstream audience. But if you can get used to the noise elements and the unorthodox approach to vocals, you’ll find that this album is a thrill ride unlike most you’ll ever be able to find. And hey, after 30 minutes of exhaustion, they were even kind enough to give the listener a nice instrumental ambient outro to cool back down to. This album is absolutely not for everyone, but if you can acquire that taste, you’ll uncover an experience that you won’t forget. Now get this album the love and attention that it deserves.
Favorite Tracks: “A Dreamer Who is Too Weak to Face Up,” “If it is the Deep Sea, I Can See You There,” “Chain-Shot to Have Some Fun,” “Shield Your Eyes, a Beast in the Well of Your Hand”