In the movie adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, John Cusack, the owner of the Championship Vinyl record store, leans over to one of his employees and says, “I will now sell five copies of the Three EPs by the Beta Band.” Instantly, “Dry the Rain,” one of the top-five side-one, track-ones ever, fills the store. Heads start nodding, and presumably, people start buying.
That trick wouldn’t work with Heroes to Zeros.
I am by no means a Beta basher. I’d been waiting for Heroes to Zeros for a long time. Though it got a fairly lukewarm reception from the general public, 2001’s Hot Shots II was an instant classic in my book. Even when the band members themselves called their self-titled LP “fucking awful,” I went right on liking it anyway. With Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich set to mix the record, Heroes was supposed to be perfect, maybe even worthy of the coveted 5.0 rating.
And then I heard “Assessment,” the lead single, and things changed. It wasn’t bad — it’s one of the strongest tracks on Heroes — but it wasn’t Beta. With electric guitars, bass and drums taking center stage, it was so thoroughly orthodox it was unnerving. The song owes a sonic debt to everyone from U2 to Interpol, and that was the first warning sign — the Betas never sound like anyone else.
The record has its moments of greatness. “Liquid Bird” takes a cartoonish hard-rock loop and folds it into a mixture of transient beats, melodies and random noises for an unlikely gem. Acoustic guitars and spacey keyboards fuel the rhythmic breakdown on “Lion Thief,” and even though the changes are sometimes hard to keep up with, it’s great experimental pop.
But keyboards alone do not guarantee good times. “Easy” takes the Stevie Wonder keyboard sound from “Superstition” and uses it for an upbeat but terrible song. Mindless repetition drags down no less than four of the twelve songs, the most notable being “Wonderful,” which sees the Betas’ densely layered production almost bury themselves right out of the track. Repetition was a Beta trademark, but most repetition here falls into the “droning” category.
Frontman Stephen Mason has stated that the purpose of Heroes was to “make original-sounding music but within a ‘pop’ song format.” And maybe that’s the problem. The Betas have thrived on wild, sometimes ridiculous experimentation in the past (remember “Monolith”?); putting constraints on themselves nullifies their biggest strength. I used to love/hate the Beta Band because you could never put any of their songs on a mix. Even “Dry the Rain” — clocking in at six minutes — was pushing the limits when you only had a finite amount of space to work with. Now that you’ve got the room, you’ll probably have little to no desire to include them. And that’s a pisser.