By Oliver Arditi
Noise, as the aural product of what is essentially a fine-grained stochastic process, calls into question the most widely shared notions of the meaningful musical utterance; or at least it does when presented or heard as music. Roughly speaking, the more noise there is in a performance or recording, the less it is able to be ‘read’ in the conventional manner; ultimately, pure noise is just that, and to present it as music is a form of abstraction. The exact form of audition that it invites in place of the conventional response to music is debatable, but there is a sense in which it questions the validity of any sensibility that can only encompass one extreme of musical practice: if it doesn’t sound like music to you, you probably need to expand your definition of music.
The idea that music is denotational is commonplace: although its sounds may not be verbally paraphrasable, conventional wisdom suggests, there is nevertheless a precise and singular meaning that can be ascribed to each musical utterance, directly related to its author’s intentions, and formed in terms of a precisely rendered, linguistically structured arrangement of pitches and rhythms. The artistic use of noise implies another view, that sound can be meaningful according to the uses that are made of it; this is a more democratic position, one which refuses and resists the essentially elitist dispensation of a ‘valid’ musical sign-system by those already engaged in using it. The presence of noise has long signalled subversion of some sort, leaving aside the misinterpretation as noise of that which is not understood (such as the rigorously coherent and organised chromatic or atonal art music of the early twentieth century); distorted guitar sounds in rock ‘n’ roll records signalled an uncontrollable and independent sexual energy, and the chaos of punk signalled a bolder re-appropriation of the materials of tonal music. More deliberate uses of noise have described a continuum of underground creative practices, from the vast (but still distinct) subculture of heavy metal, in which noise is restricted to a timbral function, to the avant-garde intensities of power electronics and japanoise; between these points are a wide range of guitar and electronics based practices, including the diverse field of noise rock, of which Japanese group Melt-Banana are clearly a part. There is far more to this band’s use of noise than its guitar timbres, of course; on Fetch you can hear a creative mission to incorporate the idea of noise into multiple elements of a musical statement, without taking the obvious routes toward atonality, arrhythmia, formal discoherence or free improvisation.
There is more than one clear level of mediation to Yasuko Onuki’s lyrical approach: for one thing, she sings in English, and although the band has long found a high proportion of its audience in the English speaking world, this is a not a commercial decision, but a creative one, which pre-dates the band’s global exposure. Although English is an international language, it’s still a pretty alien one in Japan, and the extent of mediation that implies, and the interpretation it requires, bears comparison to the resistance offered when a noise-rich utterance is asked to relinquish its meanings. (I’m going to plead ignorance and avoid the whole complex of issues around the connotational significance of the English language in Japanese culture.) Moreover, the lyrics present, at first glance, a pretty nonsensical surface, although clear topics and areas of interest emerge over the course of the songs, often related to subjectivity, perception and insanity. I found the printed lyrics on the digipack gatefold a great help, as Onuki forms her vowels in a slightly unfamiliar way, and she frequently sings so fast that entire words are elided. Lines like ‘Killer/ Kiss the dead cancelled/ Check out/ Pick a canned kickup’ may not appear to refer to anything very obvious, but in the same way that musical materials may be textural rather than tonal, the experience of passing the words’ significance through the mind in sequence can be taken as the meaning of the song; in other words, it’s a performance, not an exposition. I’d suggest that the use of noise in music similarly privileges the performative act over its discursive content.
The guitar sound clearly includes a varying degree of distortion, but Ichirou Agata knows better than to get into the arms race, leaving the extreme densities of sludge and drone or the harshest abrasions of his noise rock contemporaries well alone. At times his tone is even quite commercial, as in the compressed crunch of ‘Lefty Dog (Run, Caper, Run)’, but guitar sound is a well trodden field, and Agata brings other innovations to the table. He applies himself to texture, in the abstract, sometimes through a conventional chordal palette, and at other times unfolding sheets of non-melodic (though often richly harmonic) sound and generative rhythmic pattern; there are moments where listeners more used to the mainstream will probably be reminded of Tom Morello’s efforts to bring noise and abstraction into commercial rock (I’m thinking of ‘The Hive’ in particular), but Agata is drinking from a more capacious well. Noise, rock or otherwise, is a broad and deep tradition in the Japanese musical underground, and Fetch speaks from a mature stylistic position, where much can be left unsaid. Repetitions of single notes or chords rob them of their usual syntactic functions; fields of apparently chaotic rhythmic terrain become meaningful on their third or fourth precise restatement; vocal pitches are arranged in deliberately spiky sequences that refuse (or at least confront) the notion of melodic contour; and Onuki’s squeaky helium-napalm voice rides above the organised lunacy like a terrorist priestess surfing the debris-front of a tsunami like the one that delayed this album’s release.
So, you may get the impression from all of this that Fetch is a pretty forbidding avant-garde opus; and so it is, in a way, but it’s also very accessible in other ways, and informed by an exuberant sense of fun. In fact, the more you listen to it, the more it will sound like some kind of pop-rock entertainment; it just takes a little while to learn Melt-Banana’s language, or the particular iteration of it that informs this release. Their speed-punk and grindcore heritage is in full evidence, but some tunes are quite overtly poppy, such as the anthemically melodic ‘My Missing Link’, or the closer ‘Zero’, which emerges from a bubbling skein of short-phrase guitar textures to bounce the album out in pop-dance euphoria, complete with autotuned vocal hook. But this sensibility has been there from the first note, and is made explicit in the lyric to ‘Candy Gun’, the first song: ‘I see posers more like liars out there/ hiding something good or bad? But I don’t care/ ’cause I’ve got my candy gun […] Pick up the flashpoint/ Mess up! So what?/ Here are my candies in my pocket/ Won’t you try some? […] I can keep myself sane because I’ve/ got my candy gun!’ The sweet taste of violence is key to an understanding of noise in art generally, but in its literal form in music in particular. The challenge for the current generation is to find a way to make their own variety of racket as disruptive and obscene in context as Elvis’ pelvis or Hendrix’s ‘Star Spangled Banner’; Melt-Banana understand the nature of the challenge, embracing the contradictions and picking their targets with restless precision.
They are working as a duo on this album, and in live performance, which opens a new set of possibilities regarding the role of bass and drums: they exploit the precision of sequencing (as well as Agata’s considerable chops on his instrument) to incorporate some terrifyingly thunderous double-kick artillery into the sound, but the most notable thing about their use of these resources is how organic it sounds. It doesn’t sound as though human beings are playing the rhythms (at their most intense and complex), but it doesn’t sound remotely mechanistic either. It’s more like they found a way to transcribe a landslide or a volcano erupting; coupled with their unexpected use of natural field recordings (ocean breakers and frogs singing), it suggests another sense altogether of the possible meanings of noise. The sound of the world, they seem to suggest, is about as controversial a racket as you can make; at the core of Fetch is a juxtaposition of the artificial and the given, the mediated and the curated, the made and the found. Wrapped around that core is enough pure, playful pleasure in the materiality of sound to candy-coat a howitzer.
A-Zap Records AZCD0009, 2013, CD & DD album