The Beta Band (album)
|The Beta Band|
|Studio album by The Beta Band|
|Released||21 June 1999|
|The Beta Band chronology|
The Beta Band is the official studio debut album of The Beta Band, released in 1999 on Regal Records. The album followed the critically acclaimed compilation of their first three EPs titled The Three E.P.'s (1998). With high anticipation for The Beta Band, the band originally planned to record the album in four separate continents, but financial constraints slimmed the recording locations down; however, the album was still recorded in a variety of locations. The band approached creating the songs in a variety of ways, sometimes forming songs from single melodies, sometimes bringing together other strands of music, among other forms.
The album builds upon the experimental nature of their EPs, and is often seen as a particularly intricate, experimental and layered album, with a variety of different influences, sound effects, instrumentation and song structures. Based more-so around beat and rhythm than prior releases, the numerous different styles and influences incorporated into The Beta Band include psychedelia, hip hop and blues. Vocalist Steve Mason described his lyrics as fitting but without narrative interests. The band also recorded an ambient bonus disc of two long compositions, but decided not to include the disc in the final release.
Upon its release, the band infamously called the album "fucking awful," largely blaming time constraints. Upon its release, it reached number 18 on the UK Albums Chart. Critics were favourable towards the album, although many found the album particularly messy and disappointing after the EPs. In later years however, several critics have found the album to be underrated and have praised its ambitions.
In 1997 and 1998, Scottish-based The Beta Band recorded their first releases, three EPs, Champion Versions, The Patty Patty Sound and Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos, which were met with high critical acclaim. After signing to Regal Records, a subsidiary of EMI's label Parlophone, the three EPs were released together as the album The Three E.P.'s in September 1998, which similarly was met with mass critical acclaim. They signed to Astralwerks in the United States in 1999 who released The Three E.P.'s there. According to one journalist, "over the course of [the E.P.s], multi-instrumentalists John Maclean, Steve Mason, Robin Jones and Richard Greentree have drawn upon trip-hop beats, ambient drones and strange variants on Pink Floyd's introspective balladry to create a sound uniquely their own." The writer felt that The Three E.P.'s "served as a fabulous taster for the band's self-titled debut."
By the time of The Beta Band, the group had undergone a successful, quick American tour while having become known in Britain for their live performances. Their gigs typically featured films, a DJ set that they would perform before the show, and quirky on-stage sampling from Mclean. With anticipation for the band's official debut album high, the group began work on it in 1999; McLean later admitted they were "sure a bit worried about doing an album." They would later tour in the United States in promotion of The Beta Band.
Writing and recording
Each song on the album was approached differently; some songs the band developed from a single idea or melody, while others were "worked out beforehand in terms of chords and melodies": Robin Jones stated "We never really had a master plan ... after we did a song, we turned around and tried to do exactly the opposite. The most exciting songs were the ones where we were making something out of nothing." Vocalist Steve Mason, explaining his lyric writing, explained he typically just followed "the rhythms of the songs, more like a percussionist," and mentioned that the songs "don't really tell a story. It's just words that go in there. They mean something, but they don't mean…anything." Despite some critics believing some of the tracks to be pastiches, the band explained to Lydia Vanderloo that they were not "really into pastiche or irony or anything," with Maclean commenting, "Everything's very serious and honest, hopefully. We're not so scared that we hide behind the irony that a lot of folks seem to hide behind these days." Mason later told Tan Hedrickson of creating the songs:
"Each song starts differently, really. Some times it's a sample or a drum beat. Sometimes it's lyrics or a melody or something like that. It's different every time. [...] 'The Hard One' is a good example because we did something in a way we've never tried before. We don't really have songs where its verse and chorus, but the song has two verses and two choruses. Just to make it a bit more interesting we split everything up. We treated each section like a separate song. So the first verse was like one song. The second verse wasn't a copy at all and we tried to treat the choruses that way as well. Then we combined the songs togeter to make one song."
According to Steve Taylor in The A to X of Alternative Music, none of the songs were prepared before the band entered the studio, which is where they were "determined to keep their manual looping techniques." The band's original intention for The Beta Band was for it to be a double album with each side of the LP recorded in a different continent, "one in Tokyo, one in Mexico and so on." The band tried to plan this with their manager and Regal owner Miles Leonard, but ultimately Leonard dismissed the idea as impossible, "it would have cost three-quarters of a million pounds or something and they would have lost the plot."
Instead, according to Spin, the album was at least partly recorded in a small hut belonging to Maclean's grandfather in a remote northwest part of Scotland: "they filled it with so much musical equipment and homemade instruments that there was no room to sleep." In a 1999 interview, Mclean clarified that was created in "separate sections in places. Four songs here, four songs somewhere else. You know, break it up a bit?" As with the band's prior releases, The Beta Band co-produced the album with Chris Allison, who also engineered it, although the band's manager has said that the collaboration did not "work out this time."
Ambient bonus disc
In one of their attempts to "make something out of nothing," the band also originally intended the album to contain a bonus disc of two long form ambient pieces, "Happiness and Colour" and "The Hut", both of which lasted over 20 minutes and represented the band's desire to "make a record of sound as a description for something like happiness, where a distinct first part gives way to a distinct second part". The band's idea to record The Beta Band in Maclean's grandfather's hut was so they could "record the ocean" for these pieces, and during which they discussed the possibility of a quadruple album. After the band returned back to London, they had with them several hours of audio that they had recorded, which were then edited down into the two tracks.
According to Craig McLean of Spin, "both sounded a little random, like a radio scanning across the ether." However, the band ultimately decided to remove these tracks from the album. Jones recalled: "We liked some of what we recorded, but it's not really what we wanted it to be from start to finish. We felt the second part was lacking in direction." Nonetheless, this decision came several weeks after the band's record label had already included the ambient disc with promotional copies of the album distributed to various people in the music industry. Drummer Robin Jones felt the reason they dropped the disc was because they were rushed into constructing it in only four days, saying they intended it to be "an ambient… sound-piece. It’s really indulgent on our part, but I wanted to make it a musical story. In the same way Chill Out by The KLF is a story. So it sort of succeeds. It just needed more… conclusions. Rushed again."
The Beta Band is an experimental, sonically complex, dense and detailed album, which, compared to the band's previous EPs, which presented their "cross-genre influences" as a "melting-pot fusion," is a more abstract, beat-minded album which pits those influences "at war with one another" whilst being less folk-influenced. Described by AllMusic's Jason Ankeny as "a brashly schizophrenic freak-out which weaves its way throughout the history of rock & roll," the album crosses a wide variety of musical ground which, in the words of CMJ New Music Monthly, makes it "hard to locate exactly where the foursome are coming from." Ankeny, describing the styles, said: "Pop, blues, folk, psychedelia, hip-hop -- they're all here, sometimes even colliding within the same song; the disc somehow sounds almost completely different with each successive listen, consistently revealing new layers and possibilities.”
The ten songs on the album rely "on a nugget of a melody," often sung and played on acoustic guitar by Steve Mason, but surrounding his voice "are not just guitars and drums," but many other, more unusual instruments and techniques, including samples, xylophones, sleigh bells, hand claps, spoons, and a diversity of bird whistles, "including one of a cuckoo," with its songs "incorporating a variety of tape loops, off-centre breakbeats into," as one journalist referred to them, the album's "ambient classic rock jams and textured pop melodies." The songs on the album nonetheless are said to disregard melody and other examples of musical theory such as verses and choruses in favour "of the chaos theory." Jonathan Perry of Rolling Stone, describing the tracks, said:
"Each track unfolds into panoramic vistas of texture and sound that suggest other ethereal worlds even as the band's approach remains rooted in organic instrumentation like acoustic guitar and percussion and lyrics that often amount to little more than earth-bound mantra-like chants. It's that sense of improvisational freedom within the framework of a specific song that gives the band's material its expansive flair"
As with prior albums, the band's early Pink Floyd influence is prominent throughout The Beta Band, although hip hop is said to be a more prominent influence on this record, with "samples, splicing, rhymed raps and vocals with a hip-hop initiation [figuring] prominently." Mason hoped, regardless of the "really obvious" criss-cross of styles on "The Beta Band Rap", the band's various influences throughout the rest of The Beta Band would sound "a bit more subtly involved." Mason said the album was both a conscious and natural effort, adding "it's just something we all really wanted to do." Greentree himself described the album as "like a bird without all the fleshy bits and feathers." Stylus Magazine's Derek Miller called the album a "testimony to balls-out astral tribalism" which features "some of the more singular 'alt-pop music' of the last decade," while doing so "in a veiled manner that never shows its hand until you’re four songs deep and still stuck in thought about the first.”
"The Beta Band Rap" opens the album and consists of three distinctive parts, opening with what has been described as "a playful marching band intro" which then segues into a rap section whose lyrics recount the band's history to date "in painstaking detail," describing the band's success, signing to Parlophone subsidiary label Regal Records and "drinking champagne at EMI." It was described by one journalist as "actually equal parts barbershop-quartet serenade, proto-'Lazy Sunday' faux b-boy braggadocio, and Elvis pelvis thrusts," "It's Not Too Beautiful" follows, starting with a "throbbing guitars" that push "a wished whirlpool sound" and followed by Mason's multitracked vocals. According to one review, "the song seems to take flight on the whirl of a helicopter, with blades blunted and made soft by the dander in the air." "Simple Boy" is a quieter song, backed by "changes in atmosphere."
Described as a country rock ramble, "Round the Bend" has been described as "arguably the most focused moment" on the album, as well as "the Beta Band at their funniest and saddest." Mason's very specific lyrics are displayed as internal monologue as he recalls "his bummer of a night." According to Miller, "the juxtaposition is impossibly direct, as though the band has perfected yin-yang in song and sound and they’re too fucking shrewd to point any fingers." Bowe described the song as follows: "They blend simple thoughts about dinner and going out drinking against lavish fantasies about pyramids, reflections of the Beach Boys' Wild Honey ('it’s probably not as good as something like Pet Sounds'), and moments of deep awkwardness ('I try to function as a normal human being'). He’s still going to go out drinking with his friends, but in his head he can’t help thinking, 'I don’t wanna see my friends again/ I just want to be left alone/ And never bothered ever again.' It’s the perfect song for anyone who has ever felt stuck in their head, narrating their own shitty night out."
"“Dance O’er the Border” is both a "natural and electronic" jam, heavy on repetition and percussion, without a melody for the first four minutes; the lyrics lack verses, choruses and rhyming, and instead feature Mason talking, "ad-libbing comments and stream-of-consciousness riffs, ditching imagery for reference and poetry for personality." Miles Bowe named it the album's best song and the band's 5th best overall, saying that although not "very representative of the Beta Band's sound," it "does a pretty great job" of anticipating LCD Soundsystem. Miller described "Number 15" as "similar in tone and frustration" to the previous track, "revolving around monkey-shine dance and odd choral refrains (“twenty-five reasons that I wouldn’t want to”). Listen closely, you’ll hear furniture laughing and mammals swimming in tinfoil."
"The Hard One" was partly inspired by Bonnie Tyler's 1983 hit "Total Eclipse of the Heart". The band sampled the piano motif from the song, and "although [they] put it through stuff," they declared it "their cover version": "We switched the lyrics to the chorus around", Mason told CMJ, "I thought that it was a great song, so we ended up writing a tune around it." Jim Steinman, who wrote and produced "Total Eclipse of the Heart", threatened the band with legal action over using its lyrics, "Once upon a time I was falling in love, now I'm only falling apart," which the band changed slightly so that it became "Once upon a time I was falling apart, now I'm only falling in love," but changed his mind after he heard the song.
Release and promotion
The Beta Band was highly anticipated, with Spin called it "one of the most anticipated releases in Britain since Oasis' Definitely Maybe." Prior to release, The Beta Band was played before an invite-only industry audience in a studio/bar in Shoreditch, London, which included Noel Gallagher and Verve guitarist Nick McCabe. The band were in attendance, "looking slightly embarrassed, like gate crashes at a party in their own home." Gallagher praised the album when talking to an NME journalist. As the band told Lydia Vanderloo of CMJ New Music Monthly, the band did not enjoy promoting the album. The Beta Band was released by Regal Records in the United Kingdom on 21 June 1999 and by Astralwerks in the United States on 29 June 1999, a label who also released "Round the Bend" and "The Cow's Song" as a promotional cassette single in the US. Upon its release, The Beta Band debuted and peaked at number 18 on the UK Albums Chart and stayed on the chart for two weeks.
A week prior to the album's release, Steve Mason infamously denounced the album as "fucking awful", adding that "it’s definitely the worst record we’ve ever made and it’s probably one of the worst records that’ll come out this year." Speaking to the NME, he said the album contained "some terrible songs," opining that none of the album's tracks "are fully realised or fully even written. Half-written songs with jams in the middle.” Greentree felt the production should have been less muddy, while McLean noted that their apparent shortcomings were the band's fault; however, the band also blamed Regal for "the state of the album," including the abandoning of the ambient disc, which they saw as having been incomplete, and "not giving them enough time or money to work on the record."
The statements immediately caused tension between the band and their label; The Guardian quoted "an enraged EMI chairman" as demanding to know "what the fuck is going on with the Beta Band?" The newspaper said the band "began a public slanging match with their record company, blaming its audible shortcomings on a lack of time and funds." Miles Leonard, boss of Regal and the band's manager, dismissed their complaints, calling them "lame excuses" as "they had as much time as they wanted to have to make it, they were not forced to do anything they didn’t want to." However, he did admit that some of the financial constraints lead him to "put the kibosh" on the band's continental album idea, but felt the album was "nowhere near as bad as they say," despite feeling it could have been a better album. Speaking in 2001, the band's opinion on the album had not changed and spoke out against it being mentioned to them in interviews, with Greentree adding: "We just never felt the album was properly finished."
|CMJ New Music Monthly||(favourable)|
|Pitchfork||(8.6/10) 1 Jul 99|
|Rolling Stone||8 Jul 99|
Despite the band's unfavourable assessment of The Beta Band, the album received generally positive reviews from critics, although, as many retrospective accounts have noted, critics and fans alike also viewed the album as a disappointment, failing to deliver on the expectations of their previous work; in the words of Pitchfork's Stuart Berman, it "deflated the ballooning expectations surrounding the group in the wake of The Three EPs with all the elegance and subtlety of a whoopee cushion." While critics praised the band's ambitions, the album was also concurrently criticised as overstuffed and quite messy. In a retrospective piece, Derek Miller of Stylus Magazine disagreed that it was messy, saying it was "brave and cohesive," and noted how "they manage to somehow form a whole out of shattered, uneven pieces. It’s awkward, Dalian, almost completely disinterested in closing the circle, and that’s the beauty in its madness."
Among its original reviews, Brent DiCrescenzo of Pitchfork rated it 8.6/10 and said it was "so psychedelic, yet not excessively experimental. Nothing else sounded like that." Ron Hart, writing for CMJ New Music Monthly, was favourable, calling the album and its "experimental dabblings" a "fully realised concept." Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone rated it three out of five stars, saying it "layer warped voices, pastoral guitars and random sound effects over slow-motion loops to evoke a chance meeting between King Crimson circa 1969 and Happy Mondays circa 1989," and highlighting "The Cow's Wrong." Music critic Robert Christgau of The Village Voice gave the album a three-star rating, signifying "an enjoyable effort consumers attuned to its overriding aesthetic or individual vision may well treasure." He stated that the band is "still lost in sound, but oriented enough here to make tunes out of it."
At the end of 1999, The Beta Band was ranked in several publications' lists of the year's best albums; Intro named it 9th, Mojo named it the 10th, Rockdelux named it the 26th, Muzik named it the 27th, and NME named it the 36th. In a retrospective review, AllMusic critic Jason Ankeny thought that the album "constantly runs the risk of collapsing into complete self-indulgence." Nevertheless, Ankeny further stated: " In its way the Beta Band's genius is their wanton disregard for niceties like verses, choruses, and melodies; rejecting musical theory in favor of the chaos theory, the album's neither a masterpiece nor a mess, but both." Stereogum have conceded no less that "everyone knew that the record was rushed, and that maybe the band didn’t have enough time to fully develop the songs or lyrics as much."
In retrospect, The Beta Band has been re-assessed and called an underrated album. Writing in 2005, Jess Harvell of Pitchfork felt the band were neglected by critics and said "there's not a single band in the past year with the balls– or lack of sense, your call– to release a debut album as overgrown with ideas (not always good ones, mind you) as The Beta Band." Calling it the "most notorious" release by the band, Stuart Berman, writing in 2013, felt that The Beta Band was the last known example of a "group this strange" signing to a major label, and even then using their new label to "make themselves sound even stranger", especially when considering the album's originally intended ambient bonus disc, and said "if the record violently vascillates between fascinating and frustrating on a song-by-song basis, its over-arching oddness retains its own peculiar allure."
In 2005, Derek Miller of Stylus wrote a feature about the album as part of the website's "On Secound Thought" series, in which they review ignored, overlooked or underrated albums. Miller said that by the time the band split up in 2004, "The Beta Band was seen as unnecessarily difficult, a short side-step in the career of a remarkably talented band," but asked, in attempt to review the band's work, "the question then becomes not whether The Beta Band was a decent album that fell short of our own expectations, but if perhaps, in its own willful chase after the wunderkind of sound and design, whether it shouldn’t properly be seen as one of the band’s greatest accomplishments. It is after all a record that refuses categorization, and such battered singularity usually draws praise in heaps." He felt it was clear that the album had been underrated for too long, and felt it was due for re-evaluation, praising the album and adding: "The Beta Band remains the broken-toothed step-child with a little bit of dander on the lip and a tangle of hair on its back, but Christ those eyes, so keen and full of mischief, forgive the ugly parts."
Ryan Schreiber called The Beta Band "the greatest acid-burnt full-length of the late 90's", saying that although it "took some getting used to, since half of its songs were, to put it gently, cracked," the "densely layered electronic psychedelia" songs proved the band as "one of the few modern electronic-based bands capable of successfully splicing hundreds of self-created sources into huge, pastoral symphonies, grounded in both pop music and Dal surrealism." The album is featured in Mojo magazine's book The Mojo Collection, which lists "the greatest albums of all time."
All songs written by The Beta Band
- "The Beta Band Rap" – 4:41
- "It's Not Too Beautiful" – 8:29
- "Simple Boy" – 2:18
- "Round the Bend" – 4:56
- "Dance O'er the Border" – 5:33
- "Brokenupadingdong" – 4:46
- "Number 15" – 6:49
- "Smiling" – 8:35
- "The Hard One" – 10:06
- "The Cow's Wrong" – 5:49
- Richard Greentree – bass
- Robin Jones – drums
- Chris Allison – producer, recorder
- John Maclean – sampler, turntables
- Steve Mason – vocals
- The Beta Band – writer, producer
- Fergus Percell – human beatbox (track 5)
- Kingsley – vocals (track 1)
- Neil Richardson – trumpet (track 9)
- Gordon Anderson – lyrics (track 10)
- Stephen Mason – lyrics (track 10)
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