Listening to the thick beats, futuristic synths, angst-imbued melodies, and funky guitars of Night on Fire you might swear you had stumbled upon a Duran Duran bootleg or a recently uncovered Depeche Mode record. What you probably wouldn’t expect to find yourself listening to is a self-described indie rock band out of Kentucky. Yet this is the seemingly immaculate conception of the group VHS or Beta. Catalyzed by the insular primordial ooze of Louisville’s indie underground, they reacted violently to the scene’s dogmatism and spontaneously evolved into one of the hottest bands in new wave revivalism and disco hipsterism. Moving one step further from their French techno influences and one step closer to their own side of the Atlantic, their latest release is a riotous homage to the second British invasion that brought us dance music worthy of headphones and a soundtrack for the seedier dramas of the ‘80s.
Perhaps the time was long past due for a new wave revival. The signs have been on the musical horizon for at least as long as Interpol brought suits and synthesizers back together again, and the recent release of two new albums by ‘80s standard bearers the Cure and Duran Duran surely fanned the flames. Add to that elements of the social and cultural decadence of the ‘80s, the return of Reaganomics, conservatism and Middle East conflict, and the die is (re)cast. Oddly, what seems so courageous about Night on Fire is VHS or Beta’s brazen imitative style in the face of the overwhelming fetishism of everything new and original. They don’t just “revive” new wave, adding a little of their own style or millennial flavor, they co-opt the whole kit and caboodle. The multi-layered vocals complete with brit-accented nasality sound as if they were extracted straight from the minds of Depeche Mode or the Smiths. The spacious mix laden with ricky ticky synth tones, throbbing bass, and reverb-washed guitars mirrors exactly the easily accessible and replicable new wave formula that gave the music world enough memorable one-hit wonders that the phrase Flock of Seagulls will forever equate with retro synths and blonde bouffants and rarely with Jonathan Livingston.
That said, why would one choose the contemporary knock off over the real McCoy? First, the album is brilliant regardless of its originality. Songs like “Alive” and “No Cabaret!” pulse with energy and charisma, the beats intoxicatingly exuberant, the melodies dripping off the thick bass notes like musical honey, the hooks so delightful sticky and delicious. Every track hums with vibrancy, each its own unique celebration of life, youth, and the tenacious pull of the dance floor. The songwriting is tight and carefully calculated, always pulling back ever so slightly before slamming into the intense catharsis of the chorus. Even the lyrics are wonderful poetic odes to infatuation and unself-conscious romanticism untrammeled by pretense or phony irony.
Second, even a hipster of the most exacting tastes (read: music snobs) will find ample intellectualism in the music of VHS or Beta. Aside from the curiosity of the group’s overt replication of ‘80s music, systematically eschewing the music industry’s obsession with originality and authenticity, there is also the fact that the music is at least to a certain extent, original. The songs are thoughtfully crafted, and on tracks like “Nightwaves” the band’s house techno influences shine through with the use of more contemporary sounding techno timbres and an even deeper Daft Punk style bass. On “Forever” the band temporarily seems to forget their own intended concept (if there ever was a conscious intension at work), and makes a song that fits in definitively with their ‘90s Euro techno pop influences featuring a single sentence chorus that is systematically fragmented by layers of modern synthesizer acrobatics deconstruct the song’s consciousness of its otherwise familiar structure.
Finally, claims to authenticity are intrinsically dubious and at best one of many ways to deem a piece of art worthwhile. VHS or Beta has made an album that truly sounds great, and that ought to be enough, though they will probably be called hacks and rip-off artists anyway. Maybe they have ripped off the ‘80s, yet in a world of retro fashions, turntablisim, samplers, and narratives of nostalgia, isn’t it a wonder that anything can make a claim to originality at all? That Night on Fire manages to directly reproduce new wave without stylizing it or refashioning it for retro fetishists is perhaps the best testament to the purity of their intensions and the quality of their art.