Music Reviews
Black Gold

King Biscuit Time Black Gold

(No Style Records / Poptones) Buy it from Insound Rating - 9/10

Well thank heavens that Steve Mason's back. Or not, depending on which blogs you believe. How can we calculate the effect on British music of the loss of the Beta Band, the inspirational powerhouse of the 1990s and early 00s who influenced so much of the mainstream, from Oasis to Radiohead, while always remaining above, beyond, and ahead of the throng? From the bewildering Three Eps which had us all desperately seeking out tiger t-shirts and making our own collages, to the mixture of disappointment and punk-rock chaos that saw them tell fans not to buy their first album, through to the surprising coherence and direction of final album Heroes to Zeroes, the Betas were at the same time a strangely unlucky band. They fell out with their label and were sent on a punishment tour of Estonia, amongst other places, abortively released a single that shared a riff with I Monster's massive hit and favourite advert soundtrack Daydream in Blue; they spent vast sums of money on spacemen costumes only to misplace them somewhere on London's transport system. There's a great, almost infamous line in High Fidelity when John Cusack's character remarks that Dry the Rain is a classic that would sell millions if only more record shops would play it. Of course they didn't. And then finally, slowly, with a Best Of DVD and CD last year, they split up.

Not, though, the end of the story. Beyond the marvellous legacy of four sterling long-players, Steve Mason, bespectacled, intense, kung-fu loving frontman, had already created a stir with his solo project, King Biscuit Time. The EP No Style showcased what was to become his mantra, drawn from the philosophy of Bruce Lee: by embracing all styles, one may achieve the perfection of no style. Digressing briefly, this is finely illustrated in Way of the Dragon. Bruce Lee begins his fight against the international karate champion Chuck Norris in a rigid, traditional style. After an initial battering, he begins to hop around, stand on his toes, box, wrestle and float like a butterfly, before dishing out a royal and fatal ass-wooping to his adversary. The No Style epithet was meant to underline Mason's philosophy, also found in the Beta's work, that the artist should be as adaptable and open-minded as possible, and say him draw on hip hop, acoustic folk, beat-boxing, dancehall, hardcore, and, frankly, anything he saw fit, as well as dressing up in martial arts gear for the front cover.

One of the criticisms levelled at the Beta's late work was specifically that it abandoned this sort of bricolage and veered progressively towards more traditional four-piece guitar music; although the guitar music was class, the point is perhaps valid, with the experiments of the Three EPs seemingly left behind. Black Gold, however, is as true to Mason's philosophy as one could hope, and adds a heightened political awareness not so obvious on his group work. Opener C I Am 15 is a sprightly anti-war number in the dancehall style that sees most of the track given over to Top Cat's extended jocular toast to Messrs Bush and Blair ("Hey Saddam, where you hidin' weapons of destruction") which on paper should suck the big one but on record is mightily persuasive. The rest of the album is, well, like a really ace Beta Band album, circa 1999 - ambitious, catchy, aware, often pure genius. Of course Mason does indie, Mason does hip hop, does electonica, does psychedelia, does punk, even krautrock on Metalbiscuit, but eventually, for all the styles, he does no style: he does King Biscuit Time, he does Steve Mason, like no one else can.

The loss of the Beta Band seemed inevitable, yet almost hopelessly sad. With a cancelled tour, and an entry on Mason's myspace blog claiming that he has once again quit the music business, King Biscuit Time may be simply a hothouse flower. But Black Gold is a breathtaking album that continues the legacy and suggests that with Mason, perhaps the music will win out after all.