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We just want you to know how much we love you," VHS or Beta frontman Craig Pfunder mumbles. He cups his hand over his eyes to block the glaring spotlight and slowly scans the paltry crowd at Atlanta venue Vinyl. "We bought up all the tickets for tonight's show and released just enough for you all to see us."
A hush falls over the crowd. As bassist Mark Palgy and guitarist Zeke Buck finish tuning their instruments, Pfunder draws closer to the microphone. "The attendance tonight has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Death Cab for Cutie happen to be playing right down the street or that it's Halloween weekend. No, nothing at all," the singer quips.
It's no surprise that Pfunder's humor comes across as a tad insecure and self-conscious. For nine years VHS or Beta has consistently been at the right place at the wrong time. In the Nineties the group pillaged Sonic Youth's more cacophonous impulses long before the indie community reconnected with its noisy roots. And during the early part of this decade, the band scaled back the dissonance and veered toward dance music years before the Pitchfork nation ended its embargo on rhythm.
But the VHS or Beta bandmates have never had a smash single, and they have had to earn their fans through relentless touring, frequently opening for bands with a fraction of their experience. However, the grueling, nonstop schedule seems to have paid some dividends. At their live shows, the tension in the band's sound the synthetic slickness of backing keyboards and programmed drums audibly dueling with Pfunder's unholy fury is palpable. On "Dynamize," which they play for an encore at their Atlanta gig, Pfunder's guitar revs like a Harrier jet engine while Buck and Palgy do what little they can to be heard above the roar.
This is dance music, but played with a ferocity rare among the ever-expanding dance-punk tribe. It bears the unmistakable mark of VHS or Beta's shambolic roots and restless history.
Formed in Louisville in 1996 a city never mistaken for a rock mecca VHS or Beta began when Pfunder met Palgy shortly after he moved to the Kentucky capital. Following a coffee-shop gig that consisted almost entirely of R.E.M. covers, the group decided to expand its lineup and soon added Buck and drummer Mark Guidry. In its earliest incarnation, the band explored harsh, experimental fringes. This was several years before bands such as Liars or Blood Brothers would dare to revisit No Wave's disarray of dissonance, and while VHS or Beta certainly made a lot of noise, it fell on deaf ears.
Sensing a change of direction was needed, VHS or Beta delved headlong into Parisian house, documented on its first official album, the self-released Le Funk. Once again, the band was so far ahead of the curve that it was deemed irrelevant by critics who believed that the act reeked of gimmickry a band with live instruments plays instrumental dance music. Then, eight years removed from the group's dissonant beginnings, came album number two, the Astralwerks-funded Night on Fire, a disco-punk record that had the dubious nondistinction of being the 535th such album released in the past two years.
Whether there's an audience for Pfunder's kind of musical utopia is still an open question. Night on Fire has performed well for the traditionally dance-oriented Astralwerks, which had stumbled with rock signings of late (see Athlete or the 22-20s). It sold well enough, in fact, that Astralwerks recently re-released Le Funk with bonus tracks. Despite these modest successes, the band has yet to earn the massive following that a few of its disco-punk contemporaries presently enjoy as the 40 loosely assembled audience members attest to tonight. Perhaps VHS or Beta, balancing itself so expertly between rock and dance, is a bit too perfectly pitched, making too few concessions to satisfy either camp.
Pfunder brushes aside any such suggestion that his band's formula might have an inherently limited appeal, preferring to take a more measured view of progress: "If you're one of the handful of bands that have a huge buzz, things can take off quickly. But being from Louisville, I think it can take longer." He adds, "I honestly don't care if we ever get credit."
It's unfortunate if Pfunder feels slighted or snubbed, since Night on Fire, despite its trendy sound, is a clever counterpoint to the current wave of frivolous dance-inflected rock. VHS or Beta works with a much darker and abstract sonic palette, perhaps the last remnants of the band's early years, with lyrics that eschew sexual high jinks for thornier romantic entanglements. And where most of today's commercially celebrated dance-punk acts draw inspiration from the staccato guitar sounds of Gang of Four and Orange Juice, VHS or Beta instead taps the rich lineage of dance music, from disco to Chicago house to Daft Punk. It's a range of influences that is reflected as much in its icy production as it is in its pulsing, looping guitar lines.
However, while the band's debts to house music and the like are still fully evident on a track like "Forever," that song proves the exception as opposed to the rule. Unlike Le Funk, which was a fun albeit intentionally limited stylistic exercise, Night on Fire finds VHS or Beta expanding its template considerably, demonstrating an ability to work within the more rock-palatable verse-chorus-verse format, or, stated another way, to incorporate some of dance's more idiosyncratic sonic signatures into more standard rock arrangements.