A collection of posts from my original weblog...or the inscrutable rantings of a madman...could be both...

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Hey now, musos...I'm back after mine and Pixie's unofficial honeymoon--she's back to her job, and I've got to start cracking the employment ads and updating the ol' CV. I do have a spare moment to review The Beta Band's latest, titled Heroes To Zeros, in typical B.B. tongue-in-cheek humour. The cover art even reflects this, as it's a comic-book/manga full-colour drawing of the lads fending off an army of menacing androids. They've dropped this after a three-year hiatus, when they toured with Radiohead and got critical props for "Hot Shots II", their 2001 record.

"Heroes To.." begins with Assessment, and it's an up-tempo rocker..the first thing you really notice about it is it's crisp production--even more so than "Hot Shots", long gone are the scrappy, willfully ramshackle mixes of "The 3 EPs" and the first full-length. The main guitar riff sounds a bit like a U2 out-take, but then Stephen Mason's vocals emerge to remind you whose disc you actually bought. They've cut back on the Gregorian-type chants as well, but they do make an appearance in "Assessment". The middle section even features a (gasp!) guitar solo--albeit a jokey one. It's a solid album-opener. Space follows...charging in with a tribal drum beat and synth loops than sound like "Won't Get Fooled Again"s--only slowed down. There's a section that fits the title, in which Mason "la-las" and a low synth note provide a mellow duet. Another guitar solo in here, too..they haven't gone all "rock star" on us, have they? The next tune is called Lion Thief. It's got acoustic guitars and harmonied vocals, which give way to a spacey section of hi-hat, synth'ed claves and sampled strings. Another section appears, with echoed vocals--and back to the acoustic part. In B.B. fashion, the lyrics don't make much sense, but are lovely to listen to in the layered harmonies they sing. Easy sounds like a progressive funk hybrid..with Stevie Wonder-esque keyboard phrase and Caravan-like melody--it's one of my early favourites. Again, I have no idea what "..I'm dysmophic in doses/Imagine tryin' to..shit out/twelve red roses.." means..but it sounds great in the tune. Wonderful follows "Easy", and it's the most "ol-skool Beta Band" track on the album--it's all there...the synth hand-claps, whimsical melody and Mason singing as if he just had about four bong hits in the control room. "She's so wonderful..." they harmonize while the languid guitar solo floats behind in the mix. Troubles is next, and it begins with a synth phrase that mimics a koto, and some strings come in with the vocal. It's certainly pretty..but after "Wonderful", it's like a one-two punch to sedate you.

Out-Side wakes you up for the second half of the record with stampeding beat, raunchy blues slide-guitar and even sampled dog barks. Then the breakdown slams it to a halt with echoed vocals that made me think of Slowdive's "Pygmalion" album. The fast section whips you back into it's frenzy--and it makes for a nice stop/start effect which The Beta Band are masters of. Space Beatle is the next track--and I don't know if it's supposed to have a connection with the earlier "Space", but it's spacey enough in it's own right...with filtered organ chords, metronomic clicks and echoed vocals--followed by a section of military snare and "I love you to pieces" sung chant-style--then back to the original part..pretty seamlessly, too. Rhododendron is the album's only instrumental, though I'm not sure what it has to do with the plant. It's very Incredible String Band-ish, circa "Wee Tam & The Big Huge". Liquid Bird has an electronic sheen, programmed beats and another click track--and it's loud..until it fades out with a xylophone at the coda, of course. Next up is Simple, and it attempts to strike a balance with "Liquid Bird"s electronica and the B.B.'s rustic sound, which really seems to have been their m.o. from the beginning. "Simple" pulls it off a lot better than some of their previous tries, probably because of the production values. It also has the ol' "think-it's-over-but-it's-not", when the "you end up on your own" line is sung after a few seconds' interval at the end of the cut. The album closes with Pure For, and it continues the Beta Band mellow-track-for-the-end tradition...like "The Cow's Wrong" (which liberally borrowed from Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" for it's melody) on the "Beta Band" album and "Eclipse" from "Hot Shots" (they cheekily name-checked the final track on "Dark Side Of The Moon"). "Pure For" picks up the tempo a bit from those others and it makes a great framework for the "I'm so glad you found me" line they sing repeatedly--and with no bonus or hidden track--it really does end the album.

This one's a bit of a grower..I've only listened to it three or four times before this review..and already I like some of the tracks more than I did when first hearing them. The production is probably the best they've ever attempted and they sound like they've learned how to blend the different sections within tunes much better. That said, there isn't much in the way of a different direction or *brand-new* ideas here. If you're a fan, you'll like it--if you're expecting something completely off-the-wall (for them), you'll be disappointed. For all that though, it's good to have these guys back in action! Though I didn't think they had split, sometimes waiting three years for a new record can make you wonder. I don't know what their touring schedule is like...but go check them out live if you can--they actually can perform a lot of this stuff onstage--and they don't even have that much gear with them for all of the sounds.

The Beta Band/Heroes To Zeros: A-