The Beta Band - The Regal Years (1997-2004)

So near, so far out

The Beta Band story is one of potential, and you can hear it in practically everything the Scottish collective recorded. Sometimes it’s fulfilled, bubbling and baffling, but sometimes, sadly, it’s smashed to pieces with a comically high-pitched vocal line or seemingly endless meandering beat.

The legend goes that, after three truly great EPs, the Betas bombed with their debut. So let’s deal with those EPs first. They remain beautiful both to look at and listen to, and, from the opening, sultry bars of 1997’s The Champion Versions’ Dry The Rain, to the stuttering close of 1998’s Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos, there’s an irresistibly ramshackle effect throughout, with singer Steve Mason’s the definite figurehead. His nasal tone informs us we can be nowhere but Beta country, but, behind him, building and crashing, his band fuse their myriad influences in a way that works effortlessly, even cockily. There’s always that sweet spot in Beta songs, and The Three EPs, as they were soon packaged (try finding the first double-12” EP for under £100), was chock-full of them.

In 2000’s film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, John Cusack’s character broadcasts a section – the sweetest section – of Dry The Rain to his packed record store, confident in the knowledge he’d “sell five copies” instantly. It’s a pertinent moment – sure, it projected the group onto America, but it also proved that, in every Beta Band track lies the promise of a revelatory, epiphanic moment to long for.

So it would be nice to report that, 14 years on, 1999’s full-length debut The Beta Band itself sounds revitalised – but, alas, it’s still a hodgepodge of ideas that never gels, not so much assimilating influences as throwing them at the wall in the hope something sticks. The band instantly claimed the record was a rushed job after pressure from Regal and pushed for newer unrelated, club-oriented tracks to be released in its wake, convinced they were onto something.

For proof, one need look no further than 2001’s Hot Shots II, which takes as a jump-off the rhythms of dancehall, hip-hop and even UK garage, pairing them with Mason’s melancholia and his band’s tumultuous, gung-ho build and drop. Plus, there’s a warmth and empathy often absent from the solo projects that were increasingly splintering the group.
A limbo followed, with Squares, Human Being and the Harry Nilsson-sampling Won all released as excellent singles – the latter’s rap from Sean Reveron pitching itself somewhere between the daisy age and the thrust of Ultramagnetic MCs.

But “album proper” work eventually built pace and, by the time 2004’s Heroes To Zeros (how we laughed) surfaced, it had survived record company rejection and differing producers. The result was a mildly underwhelming sheen that sounded both wind-beaten and scorched – perhaps mirroring the mood within the band as, within five months of its release, The Beta Band announced their split.

Following a farewell tour (to witness the Betas live was an ageless tribal whirlwind of chaos and power), the band delved into solo projects. Steve Mason remains the most prominent, and is now more political than ever. He’s subsequently revealed that, during their lifespan, the Betas often turned down phenomenally large sums of advertising money.

Somewhere, wrapped in the middle of that revelation, lies the innate beauty of The Beta Band: unfulfilled potential aligned to a stubbornness that would never betray artistic ideals; a punch in the guts followed by a raspberry in the face.

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Regal/Parlophone | REG 180 CD (6CD)

Reviewed by Jake Kennedy
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