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THE BETA BAND R.I.P.
(But the Scottish Foursome’s Final Album Is Alive and Well, Thank You Very Much)

 

The Beta band is Dead.

 

Thankfully, as a final offering, their 2004 album Heroes to Zeroes is very much alive. It’s alive! IT’S ALIVE!

 

At least some Franken-monsters live on. In case you haven’t heard, the Edinburgh quartet synonymous with all things ill-tempered, esoteric, inventive, absurd and generally many thing NOT Scottish (except ill-tempered) has decided to turn in the bagpipes. Jump off a 3000-foot Highland Munro into the craggy abyss. Eat the rotten, foul haggis. Accept their commercial limits, and die.

 

The fact they even had monetary expectations – besides being on the hit-making electronica Astralwerks label – is a surprise to many. In the US, they had a cult-like following – devout but limited. Sure enough, their new album hit the UK top 20 and quickly dropped out (as listed on their own website, http://www.betaband.com/discography/heroes-to-zeros.php). The fact they post this particular chart position (un-cool), solicited Radiohead/Travis/Beck superstar knob-twiddler Nigel Godrich to produce (debatably-cool), and made their new album Heroes to Zeroes sonically and structurally accessible may have given a hint.

 

The Beta Band was going for the brass ring.

 

According to their own press release on their untimely demise, being a talented art-rock band with fawning critics and fans – and a coveted 2001 opening slot for Radiohead’s Amnesiac/Kid A tour through America – wasn’t enough. Or as they put crassly with a tinge of sarcasm, “Sadly, eight years of hard work and critical acclaim but little return in terms of commercial success inevitably takes its toll and a group decision was made to finally lay the band to rest.”

 

As a final one-finger salute to the States and elsewhere – or perhaps an economic reality – their closing tour is taking place exclusively in England, Wales and Scotland, ending with a London gig on November 29. North American tech-geeks who make near six-figures can feel free to fly over the Atlantic. Certainly, some fans will. Everyone else receives the consolation prize of bootlegs and memories.

 

What they offered brainy audiences is worth the pot-o-gold they never received. No, that’s reserved for the market-attentive Irish (U2, The Thrills.) In eight years The Beta Band distilled and distributed four mind-blowing original (if sometimes uneven) albums. In between, they conceived and firmly controlled mind-bending (if sometimes insane) concerts memorably delivering the unexpected. Some bewildering live features include:

 

  • Futuristic rock and trip-hop jams – usually in space suits
  • Set-closing drum circles (I swear some bearded band members had a little Berkley hippie in them)
  • Theatrical profanity laden threats of bodily harm towards bottle-tossing fans (true contrarians, they had East-coast hostility in their bones, too, as I witnessed in Seattle in 2002. I still don’t know if they were joking when they violently tossed out an audience member, delaying the show for 30 minutes; my girlfriend at the time swears it was a prank, mirroring their unpredictable humor. She laughed, I was horrified. I thought they were being oversensitive, rock-star jerks.)

 

And what redeemed all their antics: home-made movies projected behind The Beta Band during their sets, including blue-screen videos of the foursome flying through American West canyons on a magic carpet. They directed their own low-budget video montages (starring: Themselves!) as if taking a drug-fueled trip down Strawberry Fields. In the US at least, their stoner audience greatly appreciated it.

 

Damn, they were funny. They even felt somehow American – brash, fraternal, inconsistent, and soliciting motifs like Mexican kitsch in their artwork, or cartoon superhero figures on the latest sleeve cover. They did it all themselves. The Beta Band even directed their latest must-see video for “Assessment,” filmed hypnotically in a single shot and satirically depicting war through the ages. (http://www.betaband.com/index2.html)

 

If I’m being repetitive and going all over the place, it’s because The Beta Band’s musical lyricism and melody did the same. Then they’d remix it one more time for good measure. This was their hallmark of genius – pushing the envelope, taking creative risks, but not falling off the cliff. (Well, sometimes. They famously called their debut “shit” – just to fully warn the public first.) Bridging the best of indie-rock, the 90s electronic scene (acid-jazzy / hazy-trippy) and, dare I say, even the Beatles, they jumbled it all up into some of the catchier tunes to strike arrows in the hearts of the immoral minority.

 

Ironically, their most renowned legacy comes from a popular piece of cinema. The likable song “Dry the Rain” snapped naïve consumer’s heads to attention when played by record-store owner John Cusack in the Chicago-based 2000 flick High Fidelity. (Was there a different band referenced in the 1995 Nick Hornby novel, based in London, too? Anyone? Anyone?) Cue the infamous Cusack line as he smugly puts on the song he’s sure no one has heard, but positive will instantly shift units off the shelves: "I am now going to sell five copies of ‘The 3 EP's’ by The Beta Band." And a legend is born.

 

I give them credit; they got more recognition than most. Yet they never fully sold out. To the keep-it-real crowd, they were heroes. To industry folks who could give a fuck about “art” mixing with music, they were zeroes.

 

If this isn’t much of a review of their latest Heroes to Zeroes, well, tough. These so-called assholes gave you what they wanted at their own pace, and so am I.

 

Is this disc worth picking up, knowing you won’t ever witness these songs live? Yes. Well, maybe. It takes their psychedelic sound into more bite-sized catchier chunks worthy of BBC’s Radio 1, and it may have paid off in the short-term: as noted, it debuted at #18 in the UK. (And among the many important lessons I learned backpacking ‘round the British Isles last year – they’re not all Carling Ale-swigging idiots, just as we’re not all warmongering Bush-voting imbeciles. Even so, we share the same oil wars and generally swig brew from the same racist, homophobic American corporations – Coors Brewers Limited, makers of 20 percent of the UK market(including Carling). Ah, bloody hell.)

 

I have one pet theory listening to the new album: The Beta Band appears to be testing true believers. Like many, I never thought this solitary group would openly compete with their music industry peers on their level. Here they are. Upon hearing these hook-laden tracks, it’s obvious today’s music trends have forced them to compete in a game of one-upmanship. The racing opening song and first single “Assessment” is a shout-out to the guitar-jangle Strokes/White Stripe/Interpol/Hives diversions music lovers have taken these past two years. After a couple chord progressions, I can almost hear them taunt, “Hey, we can play some wicked garage-guitar, too – and toss in some serotonin-dropping sound effects to boot.” It’s contagious, like most Beta Band material. But a touch more ‘rock n’ roll’ and an overt dive into the audience-pleasing pool nonetheless.

 

Which doesn’t mean it’s dismissible or lacking originality -- it’s solid. At least the first few songs. The rest of the album? I admit, I haven’t paid as close attention past its midpoint, but Heroes to Zeroes is listenable and offers complex sound mixes, horn arrangements, and *for once* lyrics you can understand.

 

Like a superman hero (another R.I.P. shout out to Christopher Reeves), it could even save your ass. Desperately, I’ve often tossed on Hot Shots II or The Three EPs (two better albums) at parties, and new listeners usually enjoy. The less cynical will dig Heroes to Zeroes, too. 

 

So you have limited cash, and could give two craps about space-tripper Scots who are breaking up over (among other things) money. Or the Betas simply were not making enough moolah to stay afloat. Either way, you have a consumer choice. You can prayerfully sing, ‘Rest In Peace, O’ Beta Band O’ Mine,” then put your faith in a new messiah. If so, I suggest you Burn/Rip/Buy the latest Streets album A Grand Don’t Come for Free – who will presumably carry the avant-garde witty Brit torch for several more years.

 

Or if you’re a true-blue fan (and only fanatics would be reading this far), you may cathartically scream, “Screw you Beta Band for giving up. And on top of that, you fuckers fail to give us some Farewell Tour crumbs to your dear cousins in the ‘ol U.S. of A. After all the dirty lucre we’ve tossed your way, that’s nearly inexcusable.” But feel free to mindlessly turnaround some material love: “But wait. I’m being rash. Here you go: Take my hard-earned dollar$, in the hopes you’ll reunite in 2006 for another Cusack-produced nostalgia soundtrack single.”

 

With apologies to Perry Ferrell, as Americans on the cultural fringe, it’s your patriotic duty to help the Betas “Cash in now, honey.”

 

So smoke that fattie. Hit up your favorite independent record store or website. Toss out the money you would’ve gladly spent on accidental death insurance. Buy some eternal life on earth. The near heavenly Heroes to Zeroes is waiting rapturously for you.

 

Click hereto: read the rest of the story (unbelievably, there’s more), contact the author, and muse over loves lost!

 

Rating: 7.0 out of 10 (Or ‘round about).  Farewell Tour: 15 dates in the UK in November (which you can’t afford anyway, so why bother?)  Review by David Shuey.


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