“For so long,” VHS or Beta singer/guitarist Craig Pfunder says, “we were about trying to re-create dance music with traditional instruments. That was a big part of our identity. But there was so much more musically that we could express. With Bring on the Comets [Astralwerks, 2007], we are taking a direction that is very different from the past. With that comes the knowledge that the older fans might be expecting Night on Fire II, and that is not going to happen. We've stopped worrying what we should do in relation to the last record.”
Alluding to their eminently danceable sophomore effort, Night on Fire (Astralwerks, 2004), the follow-up to the band's 2002 house/funk-drenched debut EP, Le Funk (Astralwerks), Pfunder posits Louisville's VHS or Beta as a band for all seasons. Bring on the Comets will no doubt surprise the group's fans because it leans more toward hands-in-the-air, anthemic power pop rather than obvious dance assertions. The band's beats still recall Depeche Mode and Duran Duran, but are often couched in the skuzzy alt rock of The Cure. With the transition comes a songwriting progression that is to VHS or Beta's credit. “This is the most fearless record we've ever made,” Pfunder adds. “Night on Fire was a transitional record, and the material was older when it finally hit the market. With Le Funk, we were too early. This material is fresh.”
Recorded to a Studer A800 2-inch 24-track at Echo Mountain Recording (Asheville, N.C.) and mixed at Blackbird Studios (Nashville), Bring on the Comets was tracked on a 32-channel Neve 8068mkII board running Digidesign Pro Tools. Vintage gear abounded, from Neumann U 67 mics to Chandler Limited preamps. The fun continued at Blackbird, with everything from Pultec EQs to an Ampex ½-inch ATR-102 via an API Legacy Plus console (kudos to Blackbird's Scott Phillips) figuring into the process. VHS or Beta has always re-created dance music with analog sources, but tape?
“Tape compression, especially for drums and bass, is really crucial,” Pfunder believes. “There is something about those instruments hitting tape. The digital realm can come close, but there is really no substituting tracking to tape to my ear. Tape sounds so much better.”
Pfunder created his initial demos using Steinberg Cubase and Propellerhead Reason on a PC, but he and the band committed to tape for the remaining process. Perhaps the idea of tape was more inspiring?
“Maybe there is an element of nostalgia,” he admits. “There is something about that sound that was better than a cheap, digital platform. Recording in the electronic realm will only sound as good as your outboard gear. If you are in your bedroom with an Avalon mic pre and doing all these things to make it work, then it will sound better than going through a [Digidesign] Mbox mic pre.”
VHS or Beta used '50s-era echo techniques for “Burn It All Down” and even unearthed an ancient outboard reverb unit for further old-school effects. “To achieve that slapback echo,” he explains, “we bused a vocal through a Neve channel strip, sending the vocal through the outputs of a ¼-inch tape machine, then back to the board. There is a millisecond's worth of delay; based on the speed, it changes the actual time of the delay. We also used an old Sansui reverb unit that was sitting around at Blackbird, a weird-looking box that created the vocal effect on that track, as well.”
A planned double-vinyl LP release to accompany the CD completes VHS or Beta's analog cycle and the band's stylistic change of pace. “We have found our voice and a sense of individuality,” Pfunder confirms. “I can't say that we sound like those iconic '80s bands. There are moments where those things pop out, but there are also moments we have never touched on before.”