After the next major upset of the pop order, the Beta Band will almost
certainly be one of those groups held up as pre-revolutionary
visionaries. Their first, eponymous full-length is alienating then
compelling, gorgeous then assaultive, dull then fascinating -- and
weirdly memorable. Hot on the heels of the U.S. release of their three U.K. EPs,
The Beta Band won't make it anywhere near radio but will almost
surely filter down from big brothers and record store clerks, becoming
one of those must-haves, a fin-de-siecle precursor of whatever pop
upheaval will scare the shit out of record execs in a couple of years.
Straight outta Glasgow, the four members of the Beta Band -- singer and
guitarist Stephen Mason, bassist Richard Greentree, drummer Robin Jones
and sampler John McLean -- can name almost anyone as an influence.
Blending together disparate styles as Zappa did -- though minus the ego -- their debut full-length is, frankly, just plain weird. Take the opener, "The Beta Band Rap," which segues from tin pan alley to (bad) rap to '50s rock 'n'
roll and then freaks out. To say that it's all over the map implies that
there's a map -- this is just all over. This eclecticism can get a
little tiring, but it's an indication of the lengths they'll go to to get the sound they want.
Things get less confusing and a little more compelling elsewhere.
"Broken Up a Ding Dong" (RealAudio excerpt) spins together hand percussion and acoustic
guitar in a musical whirling dervish, Mason's multipart vocals almost
hypnotizing you. Eventually the percussion gets more intense and more
layered as steel drums, hand claps, cow bells and probably a kitchen
sink get thrown in, until -- finally -- the song falls apart, like a top
spinning to rest. It's the kind of thing you'd expect to hear in the
parking lot of a Grateful Dead show, except, well, this is interesting.
Many of the rest of the tracks are polyglot, like "The Beta Band Rap" (RealAudio excerpt)
without the discrete sections. The Band seems content to make almost
anything into part of the groove and then see where it takes them --
"It's Not Too Beautiful" (RealAudio excerpt) and "No. 15" both pull pieces from all over,
breaking the former apart and keeping the latter pinned into a corner.
It's awfully difficult to describe what the Beta Band sounds like -- at
times, there's not much they don't sound like. Imagine Captain
Beefheart with modern sampling equipment and you start to get the idea,
though Mason's vocals sound more like a lullaby than the Captain's croak
ever could. That they're uncategorizable doesn't seem forced or overly
self-conscious -- you just get the sense that the Beta Band are willing
to try anything to get the ideas in their head on tape.
There will always be pure genre music -- it's easier to get a handle on
something when you know all its rules. But the Beta Band may in fact
portend the beginning of the next underground music explosion. They obey
only the rules they write themselves, and then only when they feel like
it. The next real shake-up of the pop charts will likely come from
people who aren't afraid of taking only what they like out of the
various pop conventions and making up the rest. You can be certain that
all of them will have a well-worn copy of The Beta Band sitting
comfortably on their shelves.