Bis: Return to Central

Return to Central

A funny thing tends to happen to bands whose early notoriety is based around catchy songs despite a conspicuous lack of technical competence. From this position there are only two possible trajectories for their careers to take. The first is marked by a stubborn refusal to acquire additional mastery over their instruments or production values (sometimes even the natural progression that it would be reasonable to expect a working musician to acquire — consideration of actual effort notwithstanding). For more on this avenue see the Ramones and Shonen Knife. Early fans usually appreciate the band’s “staying true to their roots” while not publicly acknowledging the fact that every album sounds nearly identical. The second option is to either not resist or perhaps even actively pursue the acquisition of some supplemental skill. An inadvertent consequence is often the stifling of the amateurish spirit of earlier work in exchange for the all too familiar uninspired polish of the “accomplished” later work. For elaboration see Redd Kross and the Damned. The least I can say for Bis is that all of their albums don’t sound alike.

The short, ragged bursts of energy that punctuated previous releases have been replaced with an album of 4 minute + songs. The working class accents are now smooth yet somehow forced singing voices. The clash of indie guitar and pawnshop electronics has given way to slick synths and drum machines almost exclusively. Rallying slogans discarded for opaque lyrics. All of which would be well and good if the songs actually worked. Unfortunately they are mostly unengaging and flat. There are moments of inspiration — the explosive bridge of “What You’re Afraid Of”, the intro to “The End Starts Today”, the eerie melody of “Two Million” — that suggest that perhaps what Bis need most is not a muse but an editor.

As recently as 1998’s Intendo Sci-Fi Steven, Manda Rin, and John Disco declared “We be getting down with the disco crew / We start the dancing and we say fuck you” while this year’s “Chicago” finds them “In a nightclub in town / I would love to sit down / All the seats are taken / All the hearts are breaking”. What a difference a few years makes. Manda’s voice has developed into a pleasant if insubstantial whisper while Steven sounds suspiciously like world-weary crooner David Sylvian throughout the entirety of the disc. They are perhaps their most effective on album closer “A Portrait from Space” with its prominent guitar, analog synth, and (what just might appear to be live) drums.

A lot has been made of Bis’s love of early ’80s new wave but if we cast our minds back that far we’ll remember that it was nearly impossible to dance to Duran Duran in the school gymnasium and considering that the current songs no longer inspire bouncing on your bed and shouting along in teenage solidarity it’s hard to imagine what their ideal milieu would be. Of course the soundtrack to a hyperactive cartoon might be good.

Steven, Manda, and John may have begun their career as literal adolescents acting like children but as a band Bis have just entered their own adolescence and the results are predictably awkward and not always pleasant. “The End Starts Today” appropriately begins with the words “Not really sure what I am looking for / A destiny that leaves you wanting so much more / I need to stop putting it before me / I’m straying but I know I’ve not lost it”. Let’s hope that this isn’t the end but merely a difficult transition.