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Melt Banana - Bambi's Dilemma

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Artist: Melt Banana

Album: Bambi's Dilemma

Label: A-Zap

Review date: Jul. 12, 2007

It's amazing how much Melt Banana has done with so little. Watch the recent documentary American Hardcore, which chronicles U.S. hardcore in the early-'80s, and you'll be struck by the contrast between the bands' nonconformist ideals and their cookie-cutter music. A few of hardcore's biggest acts, like Bad Brains and Black Flag, were developing their own sound, but otherwise, the genre quickly became a formula characterized by galloping drums, barre chords, and simple, declamatory vocals sung in patterns similar to those of early rock 'n' roll. It's hard to develop your own sound if you're too busy playing as fast as possible and worrying about the guy in the front row who might just want to beat the crap out of you.

Since their 1994 debut album, Speak Squeak Creak, Japan's Melt Banana have used aspects of pop, noise and dance music, but the same hardcore staples have always kept them together. They're not your average hardcore band, though. Incredibly quick tempos don't faze them; Ichiro Agata's guitar work sounds like the barre chords of old spinning in a blender; and Yasuko Onuki's vocals acknowledge hardcore orthodoxy but aren't beholden to it. Bambi's Dilemma is Melt Banana's seventh studio album, and they're just as astonishing and baffling now as they've ever been.

I've heard Bambi's Dilemma described as a turn toward pop, but its second half features some fearsome noise, and even the first half is less poppy than their last full-length, 2003's Cell Scape. Beyond that, describing the important things about any one Melt Banana record mostly involves saying things that could be said about any of their albums - they've always been interesting for about the same reasons. But that doesn't make opening a new Melt Banana CD any less interesting; their sound is so distinctive and they do so much with it that the possibilities for variation seem almost infinite.

Take Yasuko's lyrics, for example - you'll need the lyric sheet to understand them, but once you have it, there's a lot to discover. At first, her words seem meaningless, just chunks of phonetic clay to sculpt around musical phrases. On that level, they're brilliant, as Yasuko grabs every word she can find and fits it perfectly: "Who wants to be in panic / Bugs are all in pancakes / We are all ecstatic."

Well, maybe you have to hear it. But the lyrics also work on another level: read a little closer, and it's easy to imagine that all the weird and colorful descriptions are part of the same hazy dystopia. Yasuko always seems to be writing about bodies that don't work right ("What would I do if my skin's so green?" she asks) - maybe the lyrics to Bambi's Dilemma could be read as the dreams of a dying person, where the moon is made of plastic and pets don't have faces.

Actually, that's probably not what Melt Banana intended, but the point is that it could be. The lyrics are evocative enough to activate the listener's imagination, and when Yasuko sings, "An earth-size trash can / Where can I get one?" it's hard to avoid the thought that it's an oblique political statement.

Meanwhile, Agata's blend of guitar buzzes, squeals, bleats and pixelated shimmers is just as thrilling as it was five or 10 years ago. The sounds lose some of their "what-the-hell-was-that?" shock value once you see the band live and realize that most of the weird sounds come from pedals and not from anything Agata does to the guitar itself, but that's not the point. The sounds themselves, weird as they are, aren't the source of the thrill - it's the way they're placed unpredictably in a blitzkrieg of sound. Melt Banana's bassist and drummer have more traditional roles than Yasuko or Agata do; the rhythm section's chief virtues are its extreme agility and virtuosity, which allow Yasuko and Agata's weirdness to make the most impact.

What finally separates Melt Banana from those bands on American Hardcore is that the latter attempted to shock audiences with the newness of their form - they aimed to dislocate listeners with pure speed and adrenaline. That form isn't new anymore; it calcified quickly. But Melt Banana manage to inflict a similar sort of shock with rapid-fire changes, weird sounds and labyrinthine lyrics. In that sense, they're really a 21st-century hardcore band. In fact, they were 21st-century well before the 21st century even started.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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