VHS or Beta switches to a different format

by Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

21 November 2007

VHS or Beta (Allentown Morning Call/MCT) 

VHS or Beta formed in Louisville, Ky., in 1997 as a loud, noisy punk-rock band. But then things changed. “We were part of scene that grew very, very stagnant, and seemingly bitter,” says guitarist-vocalist Craig Pfunder.

So VHS or Beta switched formats, some might say shockingly so, as Pfunder and his mates began using guitars, bass and drums to concoct an unusual house/funk/disco blend born of jam sessions, resulting in the celebrated 2002 debut EP, “Le Funk.”

“It was pretty drastic to do that,” says Pfunder, riding in a van en route from West Virginia to Washington, D.C., “trying to play this dance music when everyone else was playing punk. Usually it takes a significant amount of time to understand how people would come from point A to point C. But the most punk thing to do is change.”

That appears to be VHS or Beta’s credo. The follow-up to “Le Funk,” 2004’s “Night on Fire,” attempted a disco-punk hybrid, while VHS or Beta’s new CD, “Bring on the Comets,” shifts the emphasis to new wave dance-rock.

That willingness to make bold changes also extends to the band’s lineup. Guitarist Zeke Buck, a founding member, was dropped after the last tour. “We were unhappy with him,” says Pfunder, “so we got rid of him. If you find out you’re not happy doing what you’re doing, it depletes the reason you’re doing it at all. ... We know now, having been apart, that we made the total right decision.”

Musically, not everyone has been enthralled by VHS or Beta’s zigzag on “Comets.” While Urb found the Aug. 28. release full of “superb pop hooks with dance beats” and the Boston Globe deemed it “worth hearing for anyone not ready to let the past go without a fight,” The Onion concluded it “doesn’t justify the presence of vocals and lyrics” and Spin dismissed it as “a bland regression.”

Pfunder scoffs at the criticism. “I don’t think those people (who slammed `Comets’) are going to be happy with anything we do.” Then, he says with a curt laugh, “Actually, I don’t give a (crap).”

Pfunder, who was adopted from South Korea and grew up in Georgia and Orgeon, is used to pursuing his own path. “I’ve been into music since I can remember, when I was old enough to make some of my own decisions,” says the 32-year-old performer. “I was mowing lawns to save money to buy a guitar, and I taught myself to play. I come from a pretty big family, and there was always a bit of tension, people asking me, `Why didn’t you go to (college)?’ Basically, because I’ve known what I wanted to do since the sixth grade.”

The diversity of VHS or Beta’s music will be represented on the tour to promote “Comets.” Besides bassist Mark Palgy, drummer Mark Guidry and new guitarist Mike McGill, VHS or Beta includes keyboardist Chea Beckley, who, Pfunder says, “will let us sprinkle in older material such as `Solid Gold,’ `Flash,’ `No Cabaret!’ and `Dynamize.’

“Jeb Bipley_that’s our latest nickname for Chea_has been playing more, adding more stuff to our sound and rounding out the set for fans who have been with us a long time,” says Pfunder. He then adds that a My Bloody Valentine cover from the Irish noise-pop band’s 1991 album “Loveless” is in the works.

“Bring on the Comets” has several songs about finding love or the loss of it. The disc’s grandly romantic title track and the pulsating Brit-pop tune “Love in My Pocket” are soaring examples of the former, while “Can’t Believe a Single Word” is the best instance of the latter.

“Word” includes a guitar-slashed martial-rhythmed middle that calls to mind Big Country. “A lot of people have been telling me that,” says Pfunder. “But I don’t even own one of their records. ... I need to do some research.”

On the clipped, galloping “Burn It Down,” Pfunder expresses “contempt for how nations of the world misuse religion, whether through the Crusades or jihad,” and on the edgy, thumping “Take It or Leave It” he delivers “an open letter to a person in my life who committed suicide, a friend I grew up with.”

Musically, both songs echo Duran Duran, a group that VHS or Beta admires, and vice versa. “We’ve already toured with Duran Duran,” says Pfunder. “They invited us out three years ago. I can’t complain playing in front of 15,000 people. They’re nice guys, and the crowds were super nice.”

Topics: vhs or beta
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