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20YAT #16 Bis – New Transistor Heroes

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UK album chart peak: #55

It’s difficult to revisit Bis without remembering all the brouhaha that surrounded their emergence. There was the oft-repeated claim that they were the first unsigned act to play Top Of The Pops (not strictly true, but it’s a good line), and remarks about their tender age (“Manda Rin has just passed her driving test,” smirked the onscreen caption on that episode of TOTP); there was the band’s curious “Teen-C Manifesto”, which rather clumsily attempted to append pseudo-underground justification to liking sweet shops, kirby grips and the Powerpuff Girls, and there was their invocation of flailing Prime Minister John Major as a role model. It all combined to set the band in diametric opposition to Britpop and Cool Britannia in general, and in particular to the Noelrock faction therein, meaning that expressing a liking for Bis was a far sterner mid-90s statement of cultural preference than whether you bought Country House or Roll With It.

Unfortunately, though, by the time Bis’ debut album arrived, nearly a year after those disruptive first few singles, the leaves were already starting to turn on Britpop, leaving New Transistor Heroes lambasting a scene that was already past its best-before date. While that bad timing doesn’t entirely negate the semi-insurrectionary DIY wit here (and listening at twenty years distance certainly helps smudge a little of the delay, too), for a band as situationist as Bis dreamt of being it nonetheless rather tarnishes proceedings.

It doesn’t help, either, that at 54 minutes, New Transistor Heroes is about 40 minutes too long: up til now, Bis existed in the form of four-track singles, providing short bursts of riot-pop whose saccharine tang matched its medium. Here, they make a game attempt at picking out a path that suits a full album, with an introductory passage, interludes and even a hidden track, but the more grown-up structure doesn’t mitigate the continued bratty teen aesthetic, meaning their sugary CAPSLOCK bluster still induces toothache by about half way.

That’s a shame, too, because by far the less irritating half of New Transistor Heroes is its second. Everybody Thinks They’re Gonna Get Theirs and X-Defect are terrific blasts of indie disco pop, Photo Shop is an interesting dabble into hip-hop, and Lie Detector Test, the album’s best song, wouldn’t have been out of place, musically or lyrically, on the Trainspotting soundtrack released just as Bis first became brief darlings of the weekly music press.

Listening back to New Transistor Heroes now, though, it’s interesting to imagine how Bis would’ve fared if they’d had access both to 2017’s music distribution machinery and to its viral marketing tools. It’s tempting to conclude that the album would never even have existed, with its content instead uploaded in four-track chunks every couple of weeks alongside baiting tweets. Indeed, modern tools or not, one can’t help but wonder if Bis shouldn’t have done that anyway (substituting tweets for handwritten zines) – it might’ve embalmed the collection of songs that make up New Transistor Heroes more forgivingly for future generations.


Also out this week:

The Chemical Brothers – Dig Your Own Hole (Virgin). Chart peak #1
Gorky's Zygotic Mynci – Barafundle (Fontana). Chart peak #46