Melt-Banana has always occupied a curious space within whichever musical universe their work has been contextualized. I’ve come across punks who’ve found Melt-Banana too strange for their tastes, while even the “grindcore” association for Fetch — their first album of new material since 2007 — makes little sense, outside of speed and brevity, for their eclectic, bizarre fortitude. In this sense, Melt-Banana are perhaps one of the few acts whose familiar yet otherworldly reconfiguration of traditional punk and metal norms give them the status of true iconoclasts. In my eyes, Melt-Banana are at its core rooted in punk, specifically hardcore’s transition into the areas of brutal extremity that gave rise to power-violence and whatever Zorn’s grinding broken-jukebox behemoth known as Naked City could be classified as, but the band’s spastic attention span and hyperactive impishness set upon a sound uniquely ingrained in only what ingenious entities ran through the minds of its members.
The core of MB has always been vocalist Yasuko Onuki and guitarist Ichirou Agata, alongside longtime bassist Rika Hamamoto and a revolving cast of drummers. Here, the band is reduced to its formative duo state, though one would be hard pressed to notice the change. The “programmed drums” that anchor Fetch are sharp, but resoundingly organic in their hits, with a robotic precession that’s inhumanly “perfect.” Agata’s guitar sparks and burbles and spazzes in a blender of controlled chaos and eccentrically attuned effects offset by the occasional anthemtic riff or power chord, while Onuki shouts powerfully sharp and obtuse declarations of obscurity, her voice and delivery acting less as a delivery for lyrics than as a rhythmic instrument in its own right. In these regards, Fetch still encompasses all of the studied surface tics that have come to define the band over the past 19 years.
While 2003’s massively underrated Cell-Scape saw the band expand their amphetamine-punk palette into something more progressive, polished, and grandiose, there was a much darker and loudly sinister undercurrent working in the album’s favor that was sorely lacking on some of the pop-detours on 2007’s Bambi’s Dilemma. Fetch explores the fuzz-pop histrionics even further, making for a Melt-Banana that’s far more buoyant and melodious, though just as vigorously propulsive in its delivery.
“Candy Gun” begins the album with a series of repetitive glitches and ethereal ocean waves before Agata’s guitar chimes in with a torrent of open chords that eventually find sturdy grounding behind a workman-like drum track and Onuki’s high-pitched attestations. Its supernal melodicism, offset somewhat by hyper-kinetic loops of guitar and the background smattering of various synth-like accoutrements, refurnishes in “The Hive,” a reigned-in nugget of aggressive prog-pop that wears its shimmer a bit too heavily towards the sugary-sweet, primarily when Auto-Tune’d-abused vocals carry out its conclusion.
These first couple pieces showcase a perverse yet cohesive manipulation of power-pop tropes, and even the shorter, more hardcore-uniformed pieces that follow (among them, “Vertigo Game” and “Then Red Eyed”) adhere to a more orderly pacing, foregrounding the band’s melodic inclinations behind the walls of fuzzed-out guitar and staccato-timed hooks. Even the songs more becoming of the band’s blindingly-spastic beginnings — “Left Dog” and “Red Data, Red Stage” — belie a more standard-issue punk conservatism, sacrificing the unpredictability of the attacks found on career high-points such as Scratch Or Stitch for a more benign verse-chorus-verse payoff. The biggest detour into pure-pop falls upon the album’s closer “Zero,” a near-regrettable attempt at dancefloor fluff that no fan of Melt-Banana was probably clamoring for.
It may be projecting to deduce that MB had started to snatch shards of influence from their followers, mainly the exuberantly shiny Floristree school of post-Fort Thunder “noise-rock,” but the shimmering production, smooth-treble guitar storms, conspicuously-absent low-end, and general atmosphere of a giddy, possibly drug-addled sugar high that dominates Fetch feels more like Ponytail, Dan Deacon, and Brooklyn’s Parts & Labor, all of whom, for better or for worse, smoothed out the grittier edges of noise-rock’s atonal id for something more accessible. For fans of this particular school of sunshine-noise, Fetch is without question a confident, moving celebration of these particular aesthetic touches. But for the stalwarts raised on the group’s brutal-prog and hardcore-on-glitch hyperactivity that defined Melt-Banana’s peak as eye-opening gateways into more clamorous and changeling forms of experimental rock, it’s a bit all too restrained and sheltered to earn a long-standing affection.
It’s near-impossible to critique a band’s journey into uncharacteristic stylistic territory without the accusations of stubborn reactionaryism, and while Melt-Banana’s journey into comparatively accessible modes of expression hardly feels cynical or calculated, it does sacrifice a particular animalistic tension that made their most classic albums so thrilling and otherworldly. Fetch is all fantastical amphetamine-pop escape, and thankfully, the band runs through its 12 compositions in the necessary blur needed for such sugary confections to properly digest. Melt-Banana prove with Fetch that they can twist their peculiar universe into something more cordial, but one that forfeits a certain part of their penchant for risk.