Stadium rock — the name itself suggests, well, two obvious things: stadiums and rock and roll. Stadiums are large and cold and take many people to fill. Rock and roll, on the other hand, is supposed to be hot and sexy and cathartic. It’s understandable, then, that the fusion of stadiums and rock often doesn’t produce success. Stadium rock songs must please batches upon batches of different people. They must be simple, relatable and, above all, catchy. Some stadium rock bands have worked beyond the confines of the genre to create a collection of more-than-solid hits — Journey and Queen, for instance — but, on the whole, going down this road is not a safe bet. And when a previously dance-centric band happens to be in a transitional phase, stadium rock is an especially precarious step. “Bring on the Comets,” the third full-length album from Kentucky-born VHS or Beta, is just such an ambitious-but-flawed release, the result of the band’s dodgy stride into the whirlwind of stadium rock.
VHS or Beta, in their relatively short music-making career, have preferred transition to consistency. Though their first two releases, 2002’s “Le Funk” and 2004’s “Night on Fire,” were both centered in the realm of dance, their debut album preferred the groove and gloss of straight-up disco, while two years later, their dance rhythms turned too polished, almost garish, and their influences devolved from Daft Punk to Duran Duran. 2007 marks an even larger transition for VHS or Beta — “Bring on the Comets” presents a band more focused on the strained vocals, roaring guitars and monotonous bass drum pounding of poster boy stadium rock than the slick do-it-yourself electronic outfit of yesteryear.
Most regrettably, the album is missing the dance. Repetitive, circuitous beats are faintly audible and are ultimately unable to propel listeners to blood-pumping, hair-waving and limb-flailing moves. Too often, the band employs sterile, wailing guitars and confined bass plodding (see the formulaic “Can’t Believe a Single Word”). Audiences can only hope that, when a band abandons the thing it’s known for, it will redirect its focus and assume a new challenge. Successful bands investigate their new influence and present something fresh and intriguing (like the Beatles upon discovering LSD, or the Beach Boys and acid). Unfortunately, after abandoning their cradled disco, VHS or Beta come up short in the “incorporating new challenges” field. We’re left with nothing more than banal, gimmicky rock and roll. And that is never a good thing.
In addition, the band were never all-stars in the lyrics department. “Le Funk” was almost entirely instrumentals, and two of the best tracks off “Night on Fire” — “Dynamize” and “Forever” — benefited from the absence of the spoken word (though the latter did repeat the heartwarming refrain “Forever (baby) / Forever all night long” and nothing more). But since “Bring on the Comets” attempts to reach all the cumbersome highs of stadium rock, it also takes on that theme so common to stadium-filling acts — girls. And the album’s tedious 47-minute entirety seems focused on presenting romance in the least romantic way possible. On “Love In My Pocket,” front man Craig Pfunder tenderly muses, “I got what you love/ If you want it come and get it,” and “We Could Be One” features the scintillating proposal, “We could be one/ We could be so much better/ We could be one/ We should go home together.”
Though there are several points throughout the album where the band redeem themselves and rekindle the disco flame they once held so dear — “Burn It All Down” showcases the band at its best: guitars and bass pulsing with enough rhythm and reverb to pass for electronica — VHS or Beta’s latest offering is ultimately yet another example of 2007’s trend toward big tribute music. From the Arcade Fire and Bruce Springsteen to the Killers and U2, bands are looking to expand their sound and pay homage to their sources, but, unfortunately, “Bring on the Comets” doesn’t give this trend much street cred.