The Beta Band
Heroes to Zeros
Regal / Astralwerks
he Beta Band have been threatening to make a truly, honest-to-gosh brilliant record ever since they first emerged with the Champion Versions EP in 1997. Consensus would have us believe that the uniquely creative muse captured on The Three EPs, a compilation which brought together Champion Versions with the group’s other EPs (The Patty Patty Sound and Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos), has overshadowed their subsequent releases. While this may be true of their disastrous debut album proper, it undersells their understated second album, the R&B; inflected Hot Shots II, which failed to have the same impact on the press and public as those early EPs, despite its assured accomplishment. Seven years on from their first release, have The Beta Band finally managed to distil the alchemy they always seemed to be verging on?
Heroes To Zeroes has been almost two years in the making, the band putting the songs together over eighteen months and then spending seven weeks at Rockfield Studios in Wales recording and producing it themselves before bringing in Nigel Godrich to mix the album. Taking time out to allow the material to slowly gestate and breathe was a good idea; where early material often seemed wilfully experimental (the fifteen-minute “The Monolith” from The Patty Patty Sound, and almost the entire first album) and Hot Shots II was so low-key as to be almost non-existent at times, Heroes To Zeros strikes a balance between enervation, subtlety and creativity that the group first fully demonstrated on Los Amigos…, the best of those early EPs.
The opening thirty seconds of “Assessment”, a post-punk rumble with a guitar riff cribbed from U2’s very early days, could fool you into thinking Heroes To Zeroes is a backwards step, but by the time Steve Mason’s doleful and distant voice has had time to stretch harmonies towards interstellar space at the end of each line, and the horns have kicked in for the Psychedelic Furs-esque finale, it’s apparent that they’ve lost none of their playful instinct and have also remembered that sometimes the messy bits can be the most compelling. They also sound as if they’ve rediscovered how much fun it is to play as a band—never have Richard Greentree’s bass and Robin Jones’ ambivalently clattering drums sounded better, nor Mason’s guitar, the organic group work embellished just so as ever by John MacLean’s electronics and samples (although to lineate individual roles in such a way is probably to misunderstand the nature of the group).
And so the twelve tracks on Heroes To Zeroes refract the group’s past follies through their successes, reaching towards a moment in which technology and tradition, creativity and craft stand hand in hand. The multi-sectioned “Space” is one of the sweetest songs (ostensibly) about the Milky Way that you’ll ever hear; “Out Side” recalls Disco Inferno in its scratchy guitars, electronic burbles, barking dogs and train/plane/sea noises. Guitars are at the forefront again for “Liquid Bird”, probably the loudest, most abrasive thing they’ve committed to tape—the likes of Lightning Bolt may make it sound like Belle & Sebastian, but rock is relative, and thus it seems positively dangerous. Elsewhere “Troubles” and “Simple” swoon under romantic strings as Mason beguilingly bemoans something indefinable, or else declares love with a degree of sincerity that disarms and charms in equal measure, and the gently electronic album closer “Pure For” is, simply, one of the loveliest things you’ll hear for a long time. Heroes To Zeroes isn’t quite an unqualified success—almost nothing could justify the hype they received way back when—but it is further evidence that, if not messiahs, The Beta Band are very talented boys.