Music » Music Feature

Apocalyptic Change

VHS or Beta's latest album features some hit-worthy songs with heavy themes

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The songs of VHS or Beta deserve to be hit singles in an alternate, perfect universe, complete as they are with smart hooks, alluring dance rhythms and catchy melodies--ready to be conscripted as ringtones, even.

You can just hear them nestled in playlists among tunes by such like-minded predecessors as The Cars, Split Enz and Ultravox. The music harks back to a time--late 1970s, early'80s, maybe?--when robust dance beats and rock 'n' roll were not mutually exclusive.

Bassist Mark Palgy admits he and the other members of the 10-year-old band from Louisville, Ky., look fondly to the past for inspiration.

"I think we are nostalgic for a certain time," he says via cell phone from a recent stop on VHS or Beta's concert tour. "Certain music in the past was taken more seriously, and it brought people together more than it does now."

Call it New Wave revivalism, if you will, but VHS or Beta came by its distinctive sound honestly. The founding members were originally fueled equally by a passion for dissonant punk and noise rock, as well as the dynamism of disco and French house music.

While some contemporary modern-rock acts--you know who the foppish flashes in the pan are--seem to wear the style like a costume, the tracks on the new CD, Bring on the Comets, sound as if the members of VHS or Beta have been hearing them in their heads for years, and when the songs emerged into the world, they naturally took this form.

The list of potential hits seems endless: "Love in My Pocket," "Can't Believe a Single Word," "Fall Down Lightly," "We Could Be One," "Time Stands Still" and the iTunes exclusive "Army of None." Hit repeat, and the songs do not quickly wear out their welcomes.

There are even a couple of quick, mood-enhancing instrumentals, à la "Tara" and "India" on Roxy Music's 1982 masterpiece Avalon.

But the two standout tracks are "Burn It All Down" and the infectious title track, which flirt with revolution and apocalypse, respectively, even if the meanings are simply metaphorical.

Palgy is hesitant to speak for frontman Craig Pfunder, who plays guitar, sings and writes the tunes, but he concedes there's something heavy coming down the pike, at least in the songs.

"It sort of is an apocalyptic theme of change in those songs. I think Craig was trying to maybe make the apocalypse seem like a good thing, like from destruction could come the birth of something new, that monumental changes don't have to be terrifying."

VHS or Beta came together in 1997, when a couple of the fellows were rooming together, and Palgy used to stop by. A band grew from the friendship, and they fell hard for technology, using keyboards, vocoder, samples and electronic drums in addition to the traditional rock instrumentation.

VHS or Beta released an early vinyl-only EP, On and On, and by 2002 had released the album Le Funk on their own independent label. Astralwerks Records signed the act and released its 2004 album Night on Fire. In the three years since, they worked with producer Brandon Mason (who has recorded David Bowie, among others) to create Bring on the Comets, the band's most cogent statement to date.

Although in the beginning the band was a four-piece, founding guitarist Zeke Buck left along the way, and now VHS or Beta consists of core members Pfunder, Palgy and drummer Mark Guidry.

The group recently auditioned a host of guitarists and has named Michael McGill to the second guitar spot. "We hired him to learn the parts that were written; he's a touring member," Palgy says.

And VHS or Beta has never stopped touring. In addition to its own jaunts, it has opened for such acts as the Faint, Scissor Sisters, the Bravery and the mighty Duran Duran, which VHS or Beta collectively admired.

"Well, that was just fantastic, and Duran Duran are among our heroes," enthuses Palgy. "It was just so great to share the stage with those guys while playing to 4,000 or 5,000 people a night."

Any other acts for which VHS or Beta aspires to open?

"Personally, I would love to tour with U2. Craig is an enormous R.E.M. fan, and our drummer is a big Talking Heads fan."

Talking Heads may be out of the question, but, heads up, Stipe and Bono: VHS or Beta is available.

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