What does it sound like?:
The Beta Band, save for an appearance in High Fidelity with the song “Dry The Rain”, were somewhat ignored during their lifetime.
Maybe they were just a little too different, not as direct or immediate as many of their contemporaries. They do take a bit of listening, but ultimately it proves a worthwhile experience.
Since their demise, half the band re-grouped as The Aliens and have produced 2 fine albums, which in true Beta Band style have sold in relatively small numbers to “those who know”, and lead singer/guitarist Steve Mason has also released a couple of albums, one of which someone not a million miles away got very excited about a couple of years ago (Monkey Minds In The Devils Time – Rigid Digit Album Of The Year 2013).
So after hearing lead single “Planet Sizes” I was eagerly anticipating the release of the parent album.
Were my expectations fulfilled? Yes they were.
OK, it has taken 3 listens for it to seep into my brain, but in summary – this is fantastic, there is not a duff track here.
On previous releases, there was a noticeable dark, almost raw and confrontational, edge to the music.
This album starts on a positive and maintains that relaxed, joyous and confident tone throughout.
Album opener “Water Bored ” has a relentless piano riff coupled to a withdrawn, almost melancholic vocal, yet the song remains bright, joyous and uplifting.
“Alive” continues the uplifting mode, and is probably the best track of the album (admittedly there is some stiff competition, but this one wins it for me at the moment).
“Alright”, “Another Day” and “Run Away” all employ similar tricks of starting in almost claustorphobic territory and gradually rising, with strings or brass deployed to add to the layered vocal harmonies.
“To A Door” has an air of Belle and Sebastian jauntiness about it, and also has the introduction of an additional voice courtesy of Kristina Train. The claustrophobia returns, coupled with a sense definite sense of loss on “Hardly Go Through”- this is lifted by a glorious chorus and the general arrangement.
The sheer sparseness of “Through My Window” makes it almost hypnotic. There are moments when you can almost feel his voice breaking/straining.
All hypnotism is suspended as the acoustic guitar riff for “Planet Sizes” begins, and the song gradually rises to a fuller sound. Whilst it may be a simplistic comparison, much of the album has a touch of Elbow going on (hardly surprising when you consider that it was produced by Craig Potter), and this track is perhaps the most Elbow-esque.
“Like Water” is the fullest sounding of all the tracks on offer and the vocal is a lot higher in the mix. There is almost an Indie/Madchester vibe about it.
Closing track “Words In My Head” takes the Madchester vibe and adds New Order, a soupcon of Depeche Mode and hip hop/dance beats to the mix. This track is a different tempo to the rest of the album and just feels more urgent and insistent.
What does it all *mean*?
The presence of Craig Potter makes comparisons to Elbow inevitable, but there is more going on here. There is an anthemic indie quality about it, coupled with a melancholy navel gazing all lifted by the employment of varied and often joyous and glorious instrumentation and arrangements. It is both recognisable, comfortable and accessible, whilst also remaining unique and insularly personal.
We’re nearly at the end of Quarter 1 2016, and I think I’ve found the first real contender (for me) for Album Of The Year
Goes well with…
Whatever you choose to do whilst listening to music (driving, drinking, reading, something else?)
Might suit people who like…
Steve Mason’s previous work (obviously), Elbow, music, thoughtful music, being surprised when they hear something new.
The straddling of the fine line between commercial indie and “art” should hopefully attract a wide audience