Hardcore is unforgiving: It demands unremitting effort from performers, it saps their identity with formal constraints, and it’s nearly impossible to sustain for an entire good album, let alone a career. So what Melt-Banana have done on Cell-Scape, their fifth and burliest studio album, is extraordinary. The Tokyo-based quartet remain absolutely faithful to the precepts of hardcore, but guitarist Ichiro Agata and singer-lyricist Yasuko “Yako” Onuki use noise and language like nobody else in their game, and they’ve figured out how to graft hooks and emotional range onto their power-drill attack.
Agata’s guitar vocabulary comes from noise improv by way of PlayStation: a zero-attention-span spray of accelerating-jet squeals, jittering harmonics, glancing buzzes, digital burbles, and full-throated power chords. His playing relies on his pedal box as much as his guitar—the stop-and-start riff of “Lost Parts Stinging Me So Cold” gets digitally pixelated until you can hear the grain of the signal. Yako’s project is a little less obvious. A friend of mine who’s loved Melt-Banana for years was recently surprised to learn that the singer’s puppyish yelps are actually English—you have to look at the lyric sheet to tell. What’s on the sheet, though, is amazing.
I may be overinterpreting Yako’s fascination with cells and disease (maybe because Agata has a chronic bone marrow disorder and always plays live wearing a breathing mask), but Cell-Scape seems to be all about first-person-shooter games as a metaphor for radiation therapy: “Shoot the third eye/Shoot the third line/Press the ‘Blood’/Watch out for the beam/Shoot the first head/Shoot the last tail/Press the ‘Risk’/Get the hale shield for your eyes.” That “hale,” by the way, is a total Yako touch—she writes outsider’s English, picking uncommon words for the sake of rhythm and assonance. She even approximates a Snoop Dogg flow on “Key Is a Fact That a Cat Brings” (“Let me see what you need make your brain breathe like a screen seen in your wheeze . . . “). If there’s something Seussian about these examples, it’s because Yako carefully rations words of more than one syllable—”A Shield for Your Eyes, a Beast in the Well on Your Hand” has “liquid,” “sticky,” “tricky,” and “flashy” in its chorus, “falling” and “biting” in its bridge, and that’s it.
Chorus and bridge, yes. Melt-Banana’s average song length has more than quadrupled since 1994’s Cactuses Come in the Flocks, and once they started translating covers into their own idiom for encores (“Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “My Generation,” Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge,” Mina’s 1959 Italian hit “Tintarella di Luna”), a lot of conventional song structure and pop tricks snuck into their own stuff. They’ve maintained their cred by being unbelievably freaking fast, although they’ve gradually started to leverage their speed as a dramatic device. Their favorite trick, and it works every time, is pushing up the tempo almost unreasonably high, then slamming the drums into double or quadruple time. A dumbfounding cover of Toots and the Maytals’ “Monkey Man” released as a single last year ends up zooming so hard that Yako just screams like she’s on a roller coaster.
Pop shocks can go both ways, though. Thirty seconds into the new album’s last proper song, “If It Is the Deep Sea, I Can See You There,” Melt-Banana drop down from cannonball speed to mid-tempo stomp, Agata plays actual chords on acoustic guitar, and Yasuko starts singing an actual melody about a sick friend she’s about to kiss goodbye. A 10-minute instrumental cooldown follows: ambient ripples and whooshes that sound like psychedelic vital-signs monitors. Oddly, the effect is more brutal this way than if Cell-Scape had simply stopped after 25 minutes of high-velocity noise. Nothing is more hardcore than biology.