Starting with 1997's Teen-C Power EP, the Scottish trio built a giddy following with deftly groovy blasts of punk-techno-pop: political enough to rail against all that is "synthetic and pathetic," but bubblegum-sticky enough to land the theme song for The Powerpuff Girls. After two full LPs of such masterfully bratty stuff, an EP released earlier this year tossed out the guitars and much of the attitude, and with Return to Central, there goes some of the fun as well.
While keyboardist/singer Manda Rin used to squeal like a demented, feminist Olive Oyl on tracks like "Kill Your Boyfriend," on new ones, such as "Protection," she's a Highlands disco queen -- as breathy and demure as she once was brash. Erstwhile (and now just barely) guitarist Sci Fi Steve fails to provide a vocal foil for newly smooth Manda -- once he sounded as obnoxious as the B-52's Fred Schneider, but now he's got that impassive croon of '80s dance-floor emoters like the Human League's Philip Oakey. Following suit, the music is thumping, icy electronica. Manda, Steve and John Disco cook up snappy, whipping beats immersed in pulsating keyboard, with only occasional sinuous touches of guitar.
Though the sound is contemporary and often ambient, Bis is still an '80s-obsessed band -- even its youngest influences, such as Blur, are Thatcher-era revivalists. So it's no surprise that the precedent for its personality change can be found in that decade -- namely, bands like Gang of Four, which started as ragged punkers, but ended as electronic funkers, presumably to sneak political agendas onto the pop airwaves. But Bis doesn't seem to be pulling that trick, nor a vacuous sellout. The lyrics on Return to Central are mainly introspective -- songs for the midway-to-midlife crisis. Sounding like Ray of Light-era Madonna (with a brogue) on the moody "The End Starts Today," Manda sings, "I'm not really sure what I'm looking for/A destiny that leaves you wanting so much more."
Celebrated, and then battered by the English press for their juvenility, it's possible the backlash went to their heads. But more likely, the members of Bis are just doing what they feel . . . and they feel older. While they may be synthy, they're still not synthetic in spirit. Nietzsche's legacy, the self-help authors and Svengalis, will continue to talk through the big questions: What is maturity and what's so mature about it, anyway? Bis is going to work it out on the dance floor.