In art, as in commerce and conflict, the element of surprise plays a key role. And anyone who already has an opinion about VHS or BETA will undoubtedly find that opinion challenged by the group's Astralwerks debut and most mature full-length, Night On Fire.
The band's lineup - guitarists Craig Pfunder and Zeke Buck, bassist Mark Palgy, and drummer Mark Guidry- is the same one that created the group's last outing, the critically praised, Francophile-friendly bouillabaisse of booty-activators known as Le Funk. And while many of the elements that made that record great are present in this one -- finely-honed grooves, supple arrangements, and most of all, the FUNK that is essential to the best music - VHS or BETA has progressed so far, and in so many directions, that it's practically a different band.
Night On Fire finds the group evolving from its previous work as profoundly as Le Funk found it moving on from the scrawny indie-rock of its earliest recordings. The band remains informed by dance music and rock music, but the ratio is now different: the latter has caught up with the former, resulting in a hybrid that's as organically edifying as it is funky. The songwriting is more concise and yet also more experimental (the largely improvised, one-take 'Irreversible'); and the sound is more fully-realized, largely thanks to co-producers Adam Dorn - aka Mocean Worker -- and Martin Brumbach. And for the first time, the songs feature vocals. Yet those are just the most obvious signs that the band has subtly altered its gene structure from a dance act that happens to be a rock band to...
'...a rock band that is able to do dance music,' Craig says, finishing the thought. 'Le Funk was a very stylized record, and for this one, we wanted to focus a bit more on being songwriters, and incorporating vocals is a part of that. We still want to be a band that you can have fun to, but we also want to say things to people not just musically but lyrically.' Those lyrics range from wordy, personal observations to 'No Cabaret!' a broadside against New York's draconian cabaret laws. They also include the almost naïve simplicity of 'Forever,' an exhilarating flash of 1986 - like a long-lost collaboration between the Pet Shop Boys and Madonna - with a four-word lyric that ('Forever, all night long'), despite its simplicity, ranks with many a disco classic in evoking the spirit and the blissful rush of clubland. 'Yeah, that's about as light as you can get!' Pfunder laughs. 'Some of the songs are obviously a lot heavier lyrically, but we didn't want to take it too seriously, to the point where it's so serious that it wouldn't fit with dance music. But that's not to say that a song can't mean something and still be a blast on the dancefloor, or in a live setting -- getting a little darker and deeper with lyrics and still maintaining a dance quality. I think bands like New Order and Depeche Mode did a great job of that.'
Ah, yes: the '80s thing. While Le Funk was an homage to mid-'90s French dance music - a tip of the beret to the 3Ds of Daft Punk, Dimitri From Paris and disco - Night On Fire finds the group fast-forwarding back to the future, to the sounds that they grew up on. VHS or BETA is aware of this, and the mascara'ed traces of Duran Duran, New Order, Echo & the Bunnymen and 'Let's Go To Bed'-era Cure are not downplayed.
'The bands that we'll get compared to, I've been listening to since I was 12 or 13 and stealing my older brother's and sister's records,' Craig says. 'We're definitely not a band that's afraid to admit we have influences -- and this is music that I've grown up with, and it's been coming for a long time as music follows its cycles: People in my age group are returning to a sound and an era, and people are communally feeling a certain '80s influence.'
He adds, 'And there's a certain spirit that Duran Duran had with their songs that I think we touch on -- hard as it is to believe I'm hearing myself say that...'
Less obvious but just as profound is the distinct influence of Echo & the Bunnymen's underrated guitarist, Will Sergeant. Indeed, much of this album's groove emanates from the sonic and melodic interplay between the guitarists, and the style owes far more to Echo than Earth, Wind & Fire.
Formed in Louisville, Kentucky in 1997, the band initially started out obsessed with the indie noise-rock of that era -'Skin Graft records, West Coast noise, the northeast thing with bands like Arab On Radar, the Chicago thing with U.S. Maple, some of the Japanese noisecore like Melt Banana, and of course Sonic Youth' is Craig's description -- releasing two now-obscure EPs in that style in the late 1990s. The second of those, Clear found the band mutating into other sounds. 'The reviews said, 'It's Kraftwerk meets Gang of Four,'' Craig laughs. 'I mean, welcome to 2004: Every band sounds like that now.'
Partially as a reaction against the indie Puritanism that had taken over their hometown, VHS or BETA changed direction drastically into the house-infused Le Funk, but had moved on stylistically before that album was even released. 'It took so long for that record to come out,' Craig says, 'and by the time it finally did, we had already written past it. We're definitely not ashamed of Le Funk, but it's very French-sounding, and I do feel that if it had come out 18 months before it actually did -- when that sound was happening and when we were feeling it -- it would have had a lot more relevance. That's one reason why it feels so good to have Night On Fire coming out now.' But no matter what the world says about it, the band is above all confident that it's made a great record. 'We're all proud of it and it's a big step forward for us,' Craig says, 'but even more than that' - he pauses, as if embarrassed - 'I really like it. It feels really strange to say this, but I have to admit that I'm really enjoying my own record.'