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Tale of the Tape

We just want you to know how much we love you," VHS or Beta frontman Craig Pfunder says. He cups his hand over his eyes to block the glaring spotlight and slowly scans the paltry crowd at Atlanta venue Vinyl. "We bought up all the tickets for tonight's show and released just enough for you all to see us," he mumbles.

A hush comes over the audience. As bassist Mark Palgy and guitarist Zeke Buck finish tuning their instruments, Pfunder draws closer to the microphone. "The attendance tonight has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Death Cab for Cutie happen to be playing right down the street or that it's Halloween weekend. No, nothing at all."

It's no surprise that Pfunder's humor comes across as insecure and self-conscious. For nine years, VHS or Beta has consistently been at the right place at the wrong time. In the '90s, it pillaged Sonic Youth's more cacophonous impulses long before the indie community reconnected with its noisy roots. And during the early part of this decade, it scaled back the dissonance and veered toward dance music years before the Pitchfork nation ended its embargo on rhythm.

But VHS or Beta has never had a smash single, and it has had to earn its fans through relentless touring, frequently opening for bands with a fraction of their experience. However, the grueling, nonstop schedule seems to have paid some dividends. At its live shows, the tension in the band's sound — the synthetic slickness of backing keyboards and programmed drums audibly dueling with Pfunder's unholy fury — is palpable.

On "Dynamize," which it plays for an encore at the Atlanta gig, Pfunder's guitar revs like a harrier-jet engine while Buck and Palgy do what little they can to be heard above the roar.

This is dance music, but played with a ferocity rare among the ever-expanding dance-punk tribe. It bears the unmistakable mark of VHS or Beta's shambolic roots and its restless history.

Formed in 1996 in Louisville — a city never mistaken for a rock mecca — VHS or Beta began when Pfunder met Palgy shortly after he moved to the Kentucky capital. Following a coffee-shop gig that consisted almost entirely of R.E.M. covers, the duo decided to expand its lineup and soon added Buck and drummer Mark Guidry. In its earliest incarnation, the band explored harsh, experimental fringes. This was several years before bands such as Liars or Blood Brothers would dare to revisit No Wave's disarray of dissonance, and while VHS or Beta certainly made a lot of noise, it fell on deaf ears.

Sensing that it needed a change of direction, VHS or Beta next delved headlong into Parisian house, documented on its first official album, the self-released Le Funk. Once again, the band was so far ahead of the curve that it was deemed irrelevant by critics who felt its act reeked of gimmickry — a band with live instruments playing instrumental dance music. Then, eight years removed from its dissonant beginnings, came album number two, the Astralwerks-funded Night on Fire, a disco-punk record that had the dubious nondistinction of being the 535th such album released in the past two years.

Still, it's sold well — well enough, in fact, that Astralwerks recently rereleased Le Funk with bonus tracks. But despite these modest successes, the band has yet to earn the massive following a few of its disco-punk contemporaries enjoy — as the 40 audience members attested to in Atlanta. Perhaps VHS or Beta, balancing itself so expertly between rock and dance, is a bit too perfectly pitched, making too few concessions to satisfy either camp.

Pfunder brushes aside any such suggestion that his band's formula may have an inherently limited appeal. "If you're one of the handful of bands that have a huge buzz, things can take off quickly. But being from Louisville, I think it can take longer. I honestly don't care if we ever get credit."

It would be disappointing if VHS or Beta felt slighted, since Night on Fire, despite its trendy sound, is a clever counterpoint to the current wave of frivolous, dance-inflected rock. Where most of today's commercially celebrated dance-punk acts draw inspiration from the staccato guitar sounds of Gang of Four and Orange Juice, VHS or Beta instead taps the rich lineage of dance music, from disco to Chicago house to Daft Punk. It's a range of influences that is reflected as much in its icy production as it is in its pulsing, looping guitar lines. This is a band with a constantly expanding palette and an ability to incorporate some of dance's more idiosyncratic sonic signatures into more standard rock arrangements.

"A big problem with music is that it puts people into categories — it turns them into a lifestyle," Pfunder says. "And we never wanted to do that, to segregate people. Look, Bob Dylan has made records that have changed my life, without a doubt. But then, so has Daft Punk."

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Jonathan Garrett

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