“Early on, I asked myself ‘Do I want to make records for one group of people, or do I want to write songs for the world?’” That was the question that haunted Craig Pfunder, guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter for VHS OR BETA, during the creation of the band’s new album, Bring On The Comets, set for release on August 28, 2007. One listen to the ambitious, yet almost defiantly catchy, material on Comets… proves once and for all that, in this case, the world won. Then again, with each successive release VHS OR BETA can always be depended on to break stylistic boundaries. With Bring On The Comets, however, the group Blender heralded as one of rock’s “Best New Bands” and Rolling Stone named an “Artist to Watch” makes its boldest moves yet. “Through the course of being a band we’ve experimented with a lot of different sounds,” Pfunder explains. “But this record is about making a statement as far as us freeing ourselves any musical history we’ve had in our past.”
Formed in 1997 in the indie-rock hotbed that is Louisville, Kentucky (home to indie legends like Squirrel Bait to Slint), VHS OR BETA—today a trio comprising core members Pfunder, bassist Mark Palgy and drummer Mark Guidry—initially began via an obsession with the indie noise-rock of the late-‘90s era. “Skin Graft records, West Coast noise, the Northeast thing with bands like Arab On Radar, the Chicago thing with U.S. Maple, Japanese noisecore like Melt Banana, and of course Sonic Youth,” Craig notes, listing their nascent influences. Soon enough, the band, always on the lookout for vital sounds, began mutating its sonics towards an electronic/organic groove hybrid. “The reviews then called us ‘Kraftwerk meets Gang of Four,’” he laughs. “I mean, every band sounds like that now.” VHS OR BETA’s breakthrough 2002 release, the Le Funk e.p., proved equally ahead of its time—Daft Punk-style French disco-house channeled via a hungry live-instrument attack. Meanwhile, their acclaimed next effort, the 2004 album Night On Fire, vividly infused club rhythms with ‘80s-style hookcraft a la Depeche Mode and Echo and the Bunnymen before anyone had ever heard of The Killers. “We’re always either a few years ahead of the curve for the trends, or too late,” Pfunder jokes.
With Bring On The Comets, however, VHS OR BETA proves right on time: instead of being pinned to a specific genre or era, it captures instead a populist sensibility all its own. “We’ve really focused on songwriting—on creating pop songs in a time when pop has been watered down,” Pfunder says. “I wanted to write a record with huge catch and melody, but also something more. It’s the most profound statement we’ve done as a band.” Recorded along with up-and-coming producer Brandon Mason (renowned for producing and/or engineering acts spanning Secret Machines to David Bowie), Comets… provides heartfelt anthems sans arena fromage, driven by rhythms supple enough for a dancefloor yet driving enough for a rock club. Comets… is, not coincidentally, the first time drummer Guidry primarily played a standard, acoustic drum set in lieu of electronic percussion. As well, VHS OR BETA’s famously taut instrumental interplay proved even more explosive after the band completed numerous tours supporting the likes of the Faint, the Scissor Sisters, Doves, the Bravery and Duran Duran, as well as triumphant festival dates spanning Lollapalooza to Reading to Belgium’s Pukkelpop.
The next-level results on Comets… demonstrate VHS OR BETA’s new aspirations in both sonics and lyrics. The first single, “Can’t Believe A Single Word,” is a storming piano-driven mini-epic, with Pfunder’s soaring, dramatic vocals swelling to a chorus that’s alternately fist-pumping and melancholic. “One of the more exciting freedoms I experienced with this album was writing the vocals along with the music, as opposed to writing the music first and doing vocals later which was the way Night On Fire was written” Pfunder says. “I really admire singers that use different parts of their voice to tell different stories, and that's what I've tried to do here. I got to use so many aspects of my voice, which was inspiring to the whole creative process.” “Can’t Believe…” is just the beginning of VHS OR BETA’s new pop thrills: “Love in my Pocket” stuns with Beatlesque hooks, unexpected key changes and chunky guitar riffs that scream for Pete Townsend-style windmills. “Fall Down Lightly,” meanwhile, vitally captures every element of VHS OR BETA’s revamped new sound: here, discordant punk-funk mutates into a classic filter-disco groove, giving way to a startlingly catchy chorus describing a relationship’s tumble into l’amour fou. Those aren’t the only surprises on Bring On The Comets, however: the album’s darker shadings reveal themselves on the apocalyptic title track and on “Burn It All Down,” a slice of danceable fury that suggests New Order remixing the Clash’s “London Calling.” “Burn It All Down”’s potentially controversial lyrics—“We’ll burn the flags, burn the house, burn the churches—burn it all down!” chants the song’s infectious, angry chorus—reveal VHS OR BETA at their most pointed. “I asked the band early on does this scare you? But this is music—it’s about expression,” Pfunder explains. “It’s just a small personal statement about what is going on in the world. Defiance, loss of love and life—those are just themes percolating constantly all around us today. I mean, if we all went down in a hail of comets, that could be a beautiful thing in a weird way.” Adding to Bring On The Comets’ beauty are the subtle yet crucial guest contributions of Jim James, Carl Broemel, and keyboardist Bo Koster, all members of Louisville’s acclaimed My Morning Jacket. James provides sublime vocal backup on “She Says,” while Broemel adds his signature haunting pedal steel to “The Stars Where We Came From” and Koster spreads his piano virtuosity over a number of tracks. “My Morning Jacket are one of the best bands out there right now, and collaborating with them turned into its own magical thing,” Pfunder says.
And while surprises like this abound on Comets…, VHS OR BETA still haven’t forgotten their DJ-driven beginnings—a twelve-inch of “Burn It All Down” will be released in advance of the album with an array of underground club mixes; still, with a revitalized, expanded attack, the band found a new life spinning outside the disco ball they couldn’t ignore. “I didn’t want to be a band that just had a dance-club hit, and this album proves that that’s not the case,” Pfunder says. “Our love of and background in dance music is so strong, but here we switched gears and let the band be the band. We haven’t abandoned our roots—we’ve just opened our minds to new things. There’s a fine line between trendy and timeless: I wanted to write a record that people would dance to, but also crosses generations.”