From the ashes of the late great Beta Band come the Aliens, though they rarely scale the same heights.
The Aliens are comprised of half of the greatly missed Beta Band (John Maclean and Robin Jones) plus Gordon Anderson. Anderson co-wrote the mighty "Dry the Rain" but left the group after developing acute psychosis before the release of their first EP. He later produced scratchily beautiful psychedelic-flavoured folk under the guise of Lone Pigeon, whilst the Beta Band failed to capitalise on the slavering critical praise that greeted 1998's Three EPs and collapsed, amid rumoured depression and debt in 2004, after the release of the self-deprecatingly titled Heroes to Zeros. Sadly, on the evidence of this sprawling and ambitious, but unfocused and ultimately disappointing debut album, they miss Beta head-honcho Steve Mason very badly indeed.
Whether they like it or not, the Aliens are always going to be talked about in terms of the Beta Band. The comparisons though are not especially favourable. Though the latter group often struggled to translate their live sound into consistently great albums, there was always the sense of a band straining for something different, something new. At the heart of it all was Mason's unique voice, mostly doleful and plaintive, but occasionally allowed to soar on anthemic songs like "Inner Meet Me" and "Assessment". The Aliens seem to strive to record nothing but anthems; the songs are often big, bold, and brassy, but without the space to breathe many come over as bombastic and overdone. They lack the sense of experimentation and risk, the fragility and downright oddness of the Beta Band's greatest moments.
Album opener "Setting Sun" is the perfect case in point. A jangly, organ-led burst of psychedelia in search of a decent tune, it comes off like an unhappy marriage between the Inspiral Carpets and Pink Floyd. The vocals strain and implore over late-60s Nuggets-esque guitar noodling without conjuring anything other than the sound of a song that could work in a small-ish live venue. Ultimately, it ends up resembling a rather poor single by the Coral. "Robot Man", with its high-register keyboard squeals, takes six seconds to sound exactly like Super Furry Animals and repeats its vocal refrain over and over until it grates.
Things pick up slightly on "I Am Unknown", which mixes the harmonies and production of Sgt. Pepper’s with moments that reference some of Three EPs’ highlights, before slipping into a spaced-out piano-led chant of "We are the aliens". These guys can clearly do harmonies; it's just that, without Mason out front deadpanning "I am alone/ I am unknown", any counterpoint between the doleful content and the soaring, joyous music is somewhat lost. It's like listening to a mix of a track with the lead vocal removed. That is the Aliens’ problem: they lack a front man, whether it be Mason or someone else. None of these three seems capable of fulfilling that role.
There are highlights when they stop trying to cram too much in to a single song. "Tomorrow" is a gentle and spacious ballad with more than a nod to Calexico. "She Don't Love Me No More" is a sombrely moving account of Anderson's mental breakdown set to mournful strings and soft piano. The shimmering production of "Honest Again" starts off resembling a big budget overhaul of some of his best solo work before tailing off into gloopy '70s AOR.
It is to be hoped that the Aliens try again and throw off the shackles of their rather heavily worn influences as well as the burden of their own legacy. Much of Astronomy for Dogs sounds like it's trying too hard to recapture former glories without the effortless, organic twists and turns that made the Beta Band such a unique and interesting proposition. Best of all would be if they could coax Mason away from his King Biscuit Time solo project, reform the original 1996 line-up, and give the Betas another shot at glory.