VHS or Beta

Night on Fire

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On their full-length debut, Night on Fire, VHS or Beta trade in the Daft Punk-esque filter disco of their EP for dance-punk with a new wave twist. At their best, as on the album's title track and "No Cabaret!," the band sounds like Robert Smith singing over Duran Duran remixes; like the similarly retro-minded Killers, they have a knack for distilling everyone's favorite new wave/post-punk moments into pop confections. This shiny pop veneer gives VHS or Beta an edge over the increasing, and increasingly tired-sounding, ranks of artists recreating the '70s and '80s' disco-punk hybrids -- instead of trying to attach any kind of deep significance to their rolling basslines, staccato riffs, and polyrhythms, they buff the style's rough edges into smooth stylishness. The only problem with the band's transformation from a dance-inspired band to a poppier one is that their songwriting isn't always as strong as their grooves are; "You Got Me" and "The Ocean" meander, proving that it's possible to sound driving but not compelling. The dance-punk instrumentals are particularly tepid: "Nightwaves"' chrome-plated guitar squeals and four-on-the-floor beat are squandered by stretching a three-minute idea out to five-and-a-half, while the nine-minute album closer, "Irreversible," goes nowhere and seemingly refuses to end. But Night on Fire's second half makes it a little more difficult to dismiss VHS or Beta as also-rans; perhaps not surprisingly, the band gets more interesting once it stops tracing the dance-punk template so closely. "Forever" is a gloriously cheesy disco ballad rife with vocoders, wah-wah guitars, and rippling keyboard arpeggios that recalls VHS or Beta's early work as well as Discovery-era Daft Punk. Though they don't quite achieve the transcendent takeoff that the French duo achieves so effortlessly, the track does sound fresher and more genuine than some of the posturing found elsewhere on Night on Fire. Likewise, "Dynamize" is another fun instrumental, a great big love letter to the big guitars 'n' drums sound of the '80s. VHS or Beta also do well when they indulge their poppier instincts: "The Melting Room" and "Alive" are two of the most danceable songs the Cure never wrote. Even though it's possible nobody will care about dance-punk by the time VHS or Beta get their next album out, Night on Fire is an uneven but promising debut album that suggests that the group may still create something distinctive.

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