Return of 13 Hedgehogs
If the violent cartoon characters Itchy and Scratchy formed a hardcore band and were from Japan, they might sound like Melt-Banana. That description doesn’t do the band justice, for a group that has the super-human speed and pummeling intensity it does, with a distinctive weirdness and affinity for creating absolutely deliciously sick guitar noises.
Melt-Banana’s new release Return of 13 Hedgehogs, subtitled “MxBx singles 2000 – 2009,” collects 29 tracks originally on various singles and split-singles, and it takes up where their 56-track 2005 compilation 13 Hedgehogs left off. Since the band’s material is so potent and stabbing, the single format is ideal—just hit it and quit it, and leave the listener gobsmacked and wanting to immediately hear it again.
So, when you put all this material on a single CD, listening to it from start to finish is overwhelming. Aside from the normal 7-inch single and 10-inch EP formats, Return of 13 Hedgehogs culls tracks from non-standard 5-inch, 6-inch and 8-inch vinyl releases, which likely induced wet dreams among vinyl fetishists.
The two key members are female singer Yako—who provides manic, staccato vocals—and guitarist Agata, whose guitar licks are nothing less than awe-spiring, bending and distorting and abusing his notes until they are unrecognizable, like on the insane “Steel me lust.”
Among the pedal-effect-laden, thrashing onslaught are a few diversions, like the sample-spitting, dub-echoing “Capital 1060 Hospital” and the tiger-on-the-keys piano madness of “52 hands, 36 possibilities.”
Also included are several cover songs, such as the frenzied ska glee of “Monkey Man” originally by Toots and the Maytals, plus inspired takes on Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Love Song” by The Damned.
With brain-melting guitar work, hostile-yet-oddly-cute vocals and constantly inventive, limit-pushing sound treatments, Melt-Banana can never be accused of being boring.
Although today there are fewer barriers that impede musical discovery, when it comes to breaking out of the western world/non-western world divide, there are still roadblocks.
Some listeners may be stymied by language barriers and a possible inability to relate to certain pond-crossing music, which is likely why non-English-sung international hits are few and far between and often novelties. Western world explorers of music with African origins—think Talking Heads or Paul Simon in the ’80s and Vampire Weekend and others more recently—are accused of appropriation as often as they are considered ambassadors.
This writer is typically gentle toward musicians who consciously and thoughtfully attempt to open ears and not be stingy cultural gate-keepers and looks forward to the day when a person off the street can tell the difference between music from Morocco, Ethiopia and Nigeria as easily as music from various American regions.
With all this in mind, although the hardest working band in the West African country of Niger—Tal National—is known for its tenacity and marathon performances, the Chicagoan Jamie Carter facilitated getting Tal National exposure outside of Niger; Carter recorded both the excellent 2013 album Kaani and the new full-length Zoy Zoy for the band, using a remote recording setup in a makeshift studio.
While Zoy Zoy might be slightly less of a revelation to those who heard Kaani, nevertheless it sports a breathtaking precision and high level of energy forged with and intense concentration.
Fusing Saharan guitar rock with a touch of an Afrobeat vibe, the channel-separated guitars interlock inside each track’s soundstream, recorded cleanly without room for error; the bass provides counterpoint rather than merely being an anchor, and the drumming is incredibly tight, nimble and chiseled.
While the group has a typical rock band instrumental setup, the call-and-response vocals use female backing singers to carry the spirit of the combination of originals and traditional numbers on another compelling release, deserving of a wide audience.