As with many of its cultural exports, Japan’s punk is a little different. Epitomised by bands such as the percussion-heavy Boredoms, the metal-heavy Boris, and psychedelic OOIOO, its brand of noise-rock tempers avant-garde intensity with kitschy dollops of fun.
Fastest, sharpest and strangest of the lot, though, is Melt-Banana, who play what might as well be cartoon music at three times the intended speed. Melt-Banana are a four-piece, but they do without a proper drummer, the drum stool occupied in a kind of hot-desking arrangment. Singer Yasuko Onuki, guitarist Ichirou Agata, and bass player Rika Hamamoto make up the band’s sound, each given equal prominence in the insane onslaught.
Imagine a soundtrack to The Itchy & Scratchy Show scored for pneumatic drills and laserguns, played on fast-forward and interspersed with sound-effects from a bullet-hell shooter. Except all those pew-pew noises are coming out of the guitar amps. It’s not a surprise to learn that Agata converts euphoric melodies that come to him while playing video games into guitar riffs – apparently, the Tony Hawk skate-boarding series is particularly good at getting him going.
Melt-Banana have been prolific since the core band came together in Tokyo in 1992, releasing ten albums and 20+ EPs, most of them put out internationally through A-Zap, a label they started themselves. But it’s their live shows that have made them legends. The band spring and jerk about the stage like perpetual-motion Jacks for an entire set, ripping relentlessly through dozens of songs, few more than a minute long. There’s often a popular interlude where they play through a bunch of 10-second songs, each followed by a politely yelped “Thank you!” to the audience.
Still, awesome as Melt-Banana are, not everyone likes to sprinkle shichimi on their udon, so let’s end with a nod to Shonen Knife, a pop-punk girl band formed in Osaka in the 1980s. Sticklers for the DIY approach, they eschewed the J-Pop fashion and modelled themselves instead on the Buzzcocks and Ramones. It wasn’t long before they caught Kurt Cobain’s eye and they toured the UK with Nirvana in the pre-Nevermind days. Other things to like? Shonen Knife have a song called ‘Rock n’ Roll Cake’ and 30 years in, they’re still releasing records, still honouring their idols: their latest album is Osaka Ramones (2011).