The Indie Equation

The Unholy Marriage of Music and Math.


Equation #41: VHS or Beta

Simulcast on

VHS or Beta

VHS or Beta
Bring on the Comets

Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t the flamboyant, post-disco punkish culture of the 80’s coming back is style? Isn’t that what all the kids are doing these days? Is that not why bands like Ima Robot, The Killers, 1990’s (ironically), The Sounds, The Bravery, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Of Montreal and countless others exist? Well apparently there’s some kind of fine balance that critics at large hold in respect to how “80’s” a band can be; if it’s only marginally “80’s” they claim it’s a flaccid attempt at the reclamation of the spirit of a Regan era counter culture, if it’s too “80’s” they say… well, they say it’s a flaccid attempt at the reclamation of the spirit of a Regan era counter culture. But certain bands, like The Killers specifically (I feel like picking on them today), try really, really hard to revive 80’s pop under the guise of the “dance-punk” craze and are ultimately rewarded for it, whether in critical praise or, seemingly the opposite, public praise. These bands seem to have hit that median vertex of “just 80’s enough” to be relevant without being hackneyed or insincere. The question I pose then is this, why can The Killers get away with siphoning disco and 80’s Top 40 and VHS or Beta get called a New Wave knock-off (in a bad way)?

I made the mistake of really digging VHS or Beta’s new album Bring on the Comets for about a week, then reading it’s reviews after I was foolish enough to form my own opinion, only to be told by a majority of critics that I was, in fact, mistaken in liking the album. I suppose I fared better than I would’ve had I read the reviews before hearing the record, as the critical assessment hovered somewhere between “Meh” and “Ugh” with brief peaks reaching the level of “Huh, ok?”; I may not have bothered and missed out on a really enjoyable listen.

Bring on the Comets begins with the muffled disco-esque instrumental “Euglama” that gently rises into sonic focus then back out to a distant bass thump. The drums plus jittery synth and guitar bring to mind too many intros to Technicolor film strips about Ore Mining or Human Digestion from my elementary school days, but it’s a fitting sensation coming from a band that gets their name from two antiquated pieces of 80’s technology. What lies after that is, if I may be honest here, not nearly as overtly “Oingo Boingo” as people might assume, what it is in actuality is fairly standard 4/4 post-new wave rock; strobing synths, chittering hi-hats and buzzsaw guitars underpinning singer Craig Pfunder’s innocuously familiar lyrical salvo. Pfunder’s voice is a hybrid of The Cure’s Robert Smith and The Bravery’s Sam Endicott (who’s voice is a hybrid of The Cure’s Robert Smith and Billy Idol) and fits the music like a sequined black glove. Tracks like “Burn It All Down”, a goose-stepping anthem glorifying, well, arson I think, and “She Says”, a near perfect Bravery/Killers clone, seem to follow the current standard for this genre of music, as do most of the others on the album, namely a heavily danceable back beat and synthesizers. But where VHS or Beta really shine is when they unashamedly ape bands like Simple Minds, Tears for Fears and Duran Duran. The title track is about the last moments of life on Earth as comets crash to the ground, but filtered through the teenage motivation of getting laid one last time before we all die in apocalyptic chaos. A great example of when a band embraces their inner Bono and write a song that seems to be created from the stage lighting up; the song begs for a blinding burst of white light as the crash of air-raid guitar and splashing cymbals clear the way for Pfunder’s echoing pleas over a quiet piano and heartbeat bass kick. By the bridge the song is soaring upwards to an expected but welcome climax where he begs “…fall into these arms tonight / and share this one last breath. / Bring on the comets!” It’s cheesy, sure, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get one or two goosebumps. I mean, I still get chills when I listen to U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” and I’ve heard it a hundred times if I’ve heard once. The biggest departure from their form falls far at the end of the record on “Stars Where We Came From”, a gentle piano progression and that same steady thumping beat give way to long stretches of weightless pedal steel and builds into a crescendo that would make Sigur Ros or Built to Spill proud.

Critics tend to behave about the 80’s like they’re teenagers at Chuck E. Cheese. They’ll act really cool and aloof about it all, saying they’re just there for a slice of pizza and some video games, but in their head they’re yearning to dive into the ball pit (even though it always smells like feet) and a get a hug from a guy in a giant rat costume (even though he always smells like feet). Similarly rock critics will speak of the 80’s as though there’s this golden nugget of important music that made it into the 21st century and everything else was horrid and embarrassing, when 20 years ago those same critics were dancing to Taco and Stan Bush in their living rooms in socks and terry-cloth headbands. So my advice to them is this: next time you write off a band who calls up the 80’s in their sound, remember that cheesy, ridiculously cheesy music used to be fun and reliving it doesn’t make you irrelevant or uncool. It just makes you glad that fashion has advanced since you were an 80’s kid.


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