THE BETA BAND: HEROES TO ZEROS (2004)
1) Assessment; 2) Space; 3) Lion Thief; 4) Easy; 5) Wonderful; 6) Troubles; 7) Out-Side; 8) Space Beatle; 9) Rhododendron; 10) Liquid Bird; 11) Simple; 12) Pure For.
Artists are rarely capable of taking off from the exact location of their artistic muse. More often than not, it takes them at least a few years and a few personal crises to get there — not everyone can be Jim Morrison or Angus Young. When The Beta Band released their first set of E.P.s, critics fell over themselves praising their freshness and inspiration, but nobody asked the question: what are these guys, and what do they really care about? Like, it is obvious they are busy piling up these loops and mixing up these styles because they want to push forward musical boundaries, but what will they be when they get bored with pushing forward?
Well, now we know. The evolutionary curve has come to end, and on their last album The Beta Band have given themselves away: all they really wanted all along was to sing tender space-pop songs. The loops, the squeaks, the hip-hop trappings, the genre-hopping, none of that was in their blood — they were simply too smart not to try it out. But, six years into their career, they became tired of being smart. It did not pay off too well, and it prevented them from gladdening the heart. So they recorded Heroes To Zeros to gladden their heart. Then they broke up.
Each following Beta Band album is more accessible than the previous one; consequently, most fans of the band are split into those who rank their albums best-to-worst in ascending chronological order, and vice versa. I would probably join the ranks of the former, thinking more highly of The Beta Band at their most «gimmicky» (read: «intelligent») than at their most «honest» — if only because Steve Mason is not that great a songwriter to be able to get by on the bare strength of his basic melodic ideas. But this does not mean Heroes To Zeros is a failure — only that it tends to feel a bit bland when you arrive at it from the past.
The age of the free groove is over; these are three-to-four minute songs that sometimes (not too often) mutate into mantras, but more often follow the conventional verse-chorus structures. Out of all the innumerable ingredients of days gone by, the band concentrates on just two: folk-rock melodicity and «astral» arrangements — think some of the early Pink Floyd compositions, but without the depressive aspects. The album opener, 'Assessment', greets you with echoey droning guitars, floating vocals, a steady rhythmic punch and a chaotic coda, firmly anchored to the spirit of Nuggets II, and it does not get tremendously different from there.
With everything being so simple, one can only talk about the ratio of beautiful-to-forgettable on the record, renouncing the effort to find and elaborate some overall grand statement. Well, 'Wonderful' is certainly true to its title: a pompous shimmering anthem to beauty, great magical ringing guitar tone, tender romantic vocal, what's not to like? Terrific percussion arrangement on 'Space', making the 'Start is the end, more or less' part of the song one of the most clinging moments on the album. Masterful paranoid atmosphere on 'Liquid Bird'; jangly Byrds-style guitars complemented by Cocteau Twins-style background noises. Etc. etc.
Still, count me dissatisfied. Do we really want Steve Mason to open up his 2001 Space Odyssey-fuelled (I was going to write «Star Trek-fuelled», but we do not want to alienate all the snobby readers, do we?) heart to us? There are moments of beauty and power on this record, but much more often it simply strives for beauty and power, stopping short a few inches away from the acceptable levels. And this is exactly where a little bit of unpredictable genre-hopping could have helped, but, apparently, they are through with genre-hopping. Too bad: looks like the world was through with The Beta Band, in return. Decent album, but my thumbs are stuck in a strictly horizontal position about it. This is no longer The Beta Band that we used to know, and it is only fair that this was its last album.