The Robot from Ipanema
In 1984, the Canadian power rock trio Rush recorded a song called “The Body Electric”, which appeared on what is arguably their most thematically dark album, Grace Under Pressure. The track is about a robot ostensibly trying to escape its electronic sense of being, if not computer overlords, and boasts lyrics such as, “One humanoid escapee / One android on the run / Seeking freedom beneath a lonely desert sun / Trying to change its program / Trying to change the mode – crack the code / Images conflicting into data overload.” And on it goes.
What does Rush have to do with the new Brighton, UK based electronica band Beta Hector (pronounced Beat-ah Hector)? Well, nothing and everything. The two bands don’t share a sound remotely the same, and while Rush was plunging headlong into the future, Beta Hector, which is an offshoot of the funk band Baby Charles, is more concerned with plundering vintage sounds. However, they share everything in common, as there’s a song on Beta Hector’s Sunbeam Insulin called “Jupiter Mission” that involves a paranoid android with the serial number 815, seemingly on the run from some sort of cyber police. If Neil Peart met the animated cast of Lilo & Stitch, “Jupiter Mission” would be somewhere near the end result.
There is much more that is intriguing about Sunbeam Insulin (that title is a bit of a misnomer, as the album is dark, foreboding and brooding) beyond that one single. The disc is an amalgam of a stew of kitchen-sink influences ranging from funk to psychedelic to hip-hop to soul. While those parts combined don’t quite equal up to a wholly consistent tone, Sunbeam Insulin is still delectable booty-shaking music filtered through the sensibilities of ‘60s British spy and caper films. The project is the combination of the talents of bassist, producer and DJ Simon Hill, UK soul chanteuse Dionne Charles and Los Angeles-based MC Shane Hunter, alongside various hangers-on. Talents would be the apt moniker to describe this trio, as the songwriting is otherworldly and complex. Take the album’s opening cut, for instance: “Hexagon”. It’s a stab at deep funk with antiquated synthesizers that bleep and blip against a rolling snare drum track, all written in the odd time signature of 6/4. Yet it is something that you can take down to the club with you and, well, space out to.
In that same vein, the following track “Sleepwalking” (which shares the same somnambulist theme as their labelmates Nostalgia 77’s recent The Sleepwalking Society) has a laid-back vibe that sounds one-half Portishead and one-half James Bond theme. It’s the sort of thing you can swirl the liquid in your martini glass to with a great deal of glee and satisfaction. Move forward a couple of tracks to “Oracle Bones” and you get a song with a trilling flute laid down against the rhythmic and fluid flow of Hunter’s rhymes. Hopscotch over to “Super Bionic” and there’s a block rocking shuffle that seemed to crawl out of the ether of “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa, complete with electronically processed vocals. “In My Skin”, which features cool female singing, also fits into that mold, with its sparse ‘80s hip-hop beats and Atari video game pongs.
Other tracks take on more of a swingin’ ‘60s vibe. “Invasion”, with its bongo fury Latin rhythms and bracing horns, sounds as though it were ripped from both pulp fiction and the soothing sounds of Herb Alpert. “Trust Me” has a certain “The Girl from Ipanema” feel to it with a female voice not too far removed from, again, the trip-hop work of Beth Gibbons – if not the stratospheric British folk of Vashti Bunyan. “Morning Train” is almost a full-out ‘60s pop track that recalls the latter day chamber pop of Belle & Sebastian, even if the title might have you reaching towards Sheena Easton.
All in all, Beta Hector is successful on Sunbeam Insulin in marrying diverse and seemingly contrarian styles of music together into an almost seamless blend of electronic pop. While it can be a little abrasive to go from a soul-inflected track to a straight up rap one, which is the album’s sole drawback, the disc is more an exploration of the beat and what can be done by coaxing retro-cool sounds out of vintage synthesizers against organic live drum and deep bass sounds. If you use the rhythm section as a guide, Sunbeam Insulin makes a great deal of sense. The disc builds on the momentum of the seven-inch single that preceded the album’s release in 2010, “Payback” / “Creepin’”, which both appear here in gussed up versions. Overall, Sunbeam Insulin is chill-out music that the discerning fan of all things electronic and antique will enjoy. Beta Hector may share the same lyrical themes as Rush, but they sound absolutely nothing like them – or very few bands for that matter. In the end, Sunbeam Insulin is the type of record you enjoy shaken, not stirred.
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// Notes from the Road
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