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The Beta Band - The Three EPs Music Album Reviews

Keen pop instincts, a good sense of space, and a penchant for self-sabotage: That’s the Beta Band, epitomized by this 20th-anniversary reissue of their earliest works.

At a key moment in Let It Beta—a fly-on-the-wall chronicle of the sessions for Heroes to Zeros, the final bow from beloved Edinburgh oddballs the Beta Band—the business of making music creeps into the frame. The label is looking for a single, for artwork approval, for anything, and the Betas won’t budge. The Nigel Godrich-mixed Heroes arrived to near-universal praise but fair-to-middling sales, the fate of most every other Beta Band record. They broke up less than a year later, amid rumors they were in hock to the label for 1.2 million pounds. “Bands like us should be the norm,” frontman Steve Mason sneered to The Guardian in 2001. “There should be something really crazy, like… a guy whose album is the sound of him sawing his limbs off with a rusty spoon. And he only makes four albums: one for each arm and one for each leg.”

The Beta Band never got around to that fourth album. By the time they bowed out in 2004, they had the air of a band the industry had found, salivated over, and torn apart limb by limb. The Betas were never huge; their second album spent precisely one week on the U.S. charts, peaking at No. 200. Still, there was a period right around 2002 when no Case Logic was complete without “Beta Band” scrawled across at least one Verbatim CD-R.

But their career always moved in fits and starts: Their label insisted on spackling their rush-released debut in a thick coat of paisley, leading Mason to call it “fucking awful.” They gave famously standoffish interviews. They came at their label boss at every opportunity, even namechecking the unlucky sod during a song. They carried themselves at once like a band who wanted to be very famous and a band who just wanted to be left the hell alone. In that push-and-pull—between all-out experimentation and commercial appeal, delicate songcraft and wild-eyed sonic tinkering, expanse and intimacy—the Beta Band legend was born. That essence is captured anew on a twentieth-anniversary reissue of their first three EPs.

After recording Champion Versions, the first of the band’s fabled EPs, the band decamped to London, where a roommate took their demo to Parlophone A&R representative (and future Warner UK president) Miles Leonard. Parlophone issued Champion Versions, the first and most immediate of the EPs, in July 1997. The Patty Patty Sound, the strangest, followed in March 1998, with the musical midpoint of Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos landing in July. After the EPs arrived as a set in September, the buzz at home and abroad was instantaneous. The Betas went from playing the basement of the International Students House in London to the second stage at Glastonbury.

The breadth of the Betas’ powers are on display through these Three EPs, from the rousing chipmunk hosannahs of “She’s the One” to the lonesome howls of the late-EP stunner “Dr. Baker.” Whether you came from High Fidelity expecting wall-to-wall uplift à la “Dry the Rain” or you’d been taken in by the wild-eyed press notices, The Three EPs were likely not the record you expected. Slinking grooves, oddball folk tunes, deconstructed house rhythms, exotic flits, yawning mantras, real raps in fake Japanese: It’s all swirling around somewhere in this multi-hyphenate hodgepodge. Maybe half of these dozen tracks meet the qualifications of what most people would consider “a song,” with the rest given to wriggling sound-collage and expansive Floydian drift.

Somehow, it all works. The British press was particularly keen on anointment in those days, but what separated the Beta Band from scads of contemporaries was their unbelievable range. A few turns toward the light, and they could have been Coldplay; another two steps into the abyss, and they could have been the Orb. On these EPs, they managed to be both—and all points in between. The EPs don’t relegate their more outre excursions to swirling one-minute intros, either. They take up serious space, even sneaking into some of the most pop-oriented material. Look no further than the choir of helium-sucking Masons that close out not-a-dry-eye devotional, “She’s the One.” Keen pop instincts, a good sense of space, and a penchant for self-sabotage: That’s the Beta Band.

Mason’s lyrics—all quotidian vignettes, pep talks, and good old-fashioned gobbledigook—are an ideal foil for the music’s spectral weirdness. Sometimes he sounds like Ray Davies just up from a nap; sometimes, as on the haunting “Dr. Baker,” he’s a one-man Tabernacle Choir, his voice ringing out over some great expanse. Richard Greentree’s elegiac low-end work glides between acid jazz and Astral Weeks. Synth player and sampler-tender John Maclean is everywhere and nowhere, laying out the terrain with big swaths of sound and then populating it with bits of static. The mark of hip-hop on The Three EPs has always seemed a bit overstated, but the lingua franca was certainly a tool in the kit.

The remastering job for this reissue is largely unobtrusive; sound was never really the issue, though this edition is a bit cleaner, a touch hotter. The label’s claim that this is the first time the EPs have been issued on vinyl is, however, misleading. Yes, it’s the first time on vinyl for these brand new remasters, and, yes, this is the first time the The Three EPs have been sold together on vinyl. But 10 seconds on Discogs proves that the original, non-deluxe variety is not exactly in short supply. (While there is no bonus music here, this edition does come with a reprinting of the band’s Flower Press zine, far rarer than an OG VG+ Patty Patty Sound.)

This set never lent itself to the vinyl format, anyway. A 78-minute odyssey, The Three EPs is suited to uninterrupted listening. In college, we’d throw the CD on during a study session (of course) and wonder aloud if this was still the Beta Band halfway stop “The Monolith.” Getting up to flip these eight sides every ten minutes or so breaks that spell; there’s no way to get lost in the slipstream when you’re making that many trips to the turntable. If you’re anything like me, you’ll gaze admiringly at the deluxe edition nestled on your shelf while you load the record on Spotify.

These crackling, chameleonic EPs still seem to hold secrets, surprising and confounding in equal measure. A lot has changed in 20 years, but the very existence of the Beta Band—four rave-damaged, dub-inflected, spacecase pop savants, briefly given the keys to the kingdom—is still enough to spin your head. “I always imagined we’d be as big as Radiohead,” Mason told The Guardian in 2004. The music industry was not always kind to the Betas, but the Beta Band’s work after these EPs, built with an ostentatious arsenal of vintage equipment, wouldn’t exist without major-label patronage. Yet the Betas are precisely the kind of band the risk-averse majors would likely never sign now. Maybe Mason was right all along: Bands like this should be the norm.

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