Live Review: Melt-Banana, 18 November 2005

Joseph’s Well, Leeds.
Support: Khanate

Melt-Banana. What a band. They play some bizarre cartoon mix of very intense hardcore, grindcore and recently even electronic music. They are the perfect ‘extreme’ band for today’s MTV-conditioned, two-minute attention span society, with its desire for the instant fix. The fix doesn’t come much more instantly than Melt’s very Japanese take on the music.

It is so creative, in the restraints of what is ordinarily a very uniform genre. Melt find a way of surprising and confounding the listener at every turn, and have done over numerous albums since the mid-90s. The best thing is, they seem to be getting better as they go on.

So it was with delight and no small excitement that I greeted news that they were due to play in my town. That was a gig I just had to attend, especially when it came to my attention that Khanate were to be supporting.

Khanate are almost the polar opposite of Melt-Banana. While the Tokyo band specialise in very short, fast songs, Khanate are masters of the epic. And that’s ‘epic’ in the sense that their last album, Capture and Release, featured just two songs – ‘Capture’ and ‘Release’, and was well over forty minutes.

Featuring modern drone-king Stephen O’Malley from sunnO))) on guitar, Khanate are similar to that band in that they’re about the promise of riffs, rather than the actual delivery. They specialise in feeding back, low-frequency drones and occasionally-struck discords. They build and build without the song ever truly ‘kicking in’, in the traditional sense.

While this is very effective and the sounds they create (especially with their wailing vocalist) are intense and harrowing, this can sometimes lead to frustration. The aforementioned ‘release’ never actually comes.

Still, this promised to be a very dynamic evening. The day came, and I had other things to attend to, which were of equal value. However, at nine o’clock, I decided I had to leave my prior engagement, as I wanted to make sure I caught Khanate, and who knows when they’d be playing?

So I got to the venue and met my friends. Turns out that, not only had Khanate not played yet, but doors were yet to open. So I chilled, ruing the fact I had departed my other engagement as early as I did. Hindsight, eh? Anyway, after a decent though uninspiring opening band, Khanate finally emerged in a haze of distortion.

And it was good. Really good. The sound was immense as bass rumbled all around the sunken sweatbox they like to call ‘The Well’. There was an agonised screaming, which I thought was running on a DAT tape, but was actually emanating from the singer who I just couldn’t see. Shame, as I reckon his facial expressions while performing would have been something to behold for that sound to come out.

The frustration I mentioned reared its head during the set. In a live environment, the listener (me at least) wants to rock out, and the definition of what Khanate is prevents that. There is no rhythmic riff, no hook. While that’s all well and good when it comes to listening at home, or analysis of just how clever and post-everything they are, it just doesn’t translate live. They tease the kick in, I want to dance, but it frustratingly just never gets going.

With the knowledge that they would never kick-in in mind, I went about different methods of getting the most from the band. I closed my eyes and visualised. It turns out that Khanate are a great band for tripping out to, as I was experiencing quite vivid closed-eye hallucinations.

The hallucinations consisted mainly of reds and blacks (which prompted me to worry that perhaps I was a repressed Scum fan), and explosions. I saw grand mountainous thrones, belching smoke and fire. I saw flying things, some shades of white and obsidian tides. It was great, except for the idiot scenesters right in front of me who decided it was a good idea to hold a conversation during the set.

Khanate finished, with me slightly disappointed at the lack of a rock-out. More worrying was the feeling that, with Khanate being as intense as they are, I was feeling drained. They had played three songs and I, while having really enjoyed the primal power of their set, was feeling rather fatigued to be experiencing Melt-Banana. Perhaps they would energise me, I hoped.

So Melt-Banana came on, and they were a blur of noise and energy. Lead singer Yasuko O. is a fascinating front-person. The obvious juxtaposition of such a pleasant and attractive person singing for such a brutal band goes without saying. However, the main thing that struck me was quite how she performs.

I know this is playing into pop-cultural national stereotype, but I was put in mind of a very specific type of anime character. The female or child in charge of something really goddamn powerful, an archetype prevalent in the genre. You’ve seen them, Leona of Dominion Tank Police or whatever – the idea is that someone small of stature and perceived as ‘weak’ or ‘cute’ is in charge of a machine capable of great power and devastation.

And so it was with this. On the surface, Yasuko seemed totally innocent, but with the knowledge deep down that she was in control of the sounds. She was either conduit through which the energy could flow or, more malevolent, a Tetsuo-esque being who was directing the violence.

Whatever the case, her voice carried with it 1.21 gigawatts of utter madness, as guitars, bass and noise exploded in accompaniment of her hyperactive yelping. Not only did she control the mania onstage, but she was like a lightning conductor for the frenzy of the pit. She’d introduce a song, and her punctuation of the music sent the sweaty throng into hysteria.

While of course it was the band who was creating the storm of noise she, as signifier, was symbolically the operator. Much as I’m dwelling on it, there was a sense that, as with all great front-people, it was all coming from her. That’s actually a theme common to the other gigs from this time, as both Bob Dylan and Josh T. Pearson evoked the same feeling. Just for very different reasons.

On the onslaught went, the pit convulsing as though shocked by every sonic charge fired from the stage. As the set went on, energy levels never dipped. Despite the very uniform noise of the band, there was a definite dynamic to the set.

Midway through the performance, Yasuko announced that the following section would be devoted to their short songs, and it’s not as though the band is known for its 20-minute drone sequences anyway. Songs ranged from really short to really, really, really bloody short. Like, a few seconds.

Anyway, it meant the pit could go absolutely nutty with no fear of fatigue, and also that I was mightily amused at the staccato nature of everything that was happening. The normal set resumed, the band left the stage, the band returned to the stage.

Encore time, and I was revitalised. The general malaise engendered by the Khanate set, which had slowed my whole system down, threatening to ruin my night, had fully lifted by this point, and I was determined to show the pit a thing or two. And I did, accompanied by some great songs.

Chief among these was my favourite, an off-kilter, yet very melodic (for them) ditty, named ‘If It Is The Deep Sea, I Can See You There’. Brilliance, as the initial grind gives way to acoustic strumming and robotic vocal melodies. Fired up I was, wreaking havoc, and it was a great end to the night.

Leaving the building, I was very self-conscious in my vest (or ‘wife beater’, as those without taste are wont to dub it), especially as we were in the depths of winter. I didn’t care – I was standing there with steam rising from my body, for a solid quarter of an hour. A good gig indeed.

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