Beat Temple's release this week of Hands of Mercy, the band's first CD in its six-year career, could be strike three -- the after-the-fact death rattle of a band breaking its last leg. It could be, but it's not. If the stats suggest a dead band, Hands of Mercy sounds more like a band rejuvenated. Hungry. Maybe even a band standing on the verge of getting it on. Funk may still be radio format poison, and it remains to be seen if Beat Temple can overcome an apathetic public familiarity to reach any new plateaus, but in the meantime, they've recorded a fine, soulful CD that shows the band coming, finally, into musical focus. And that's really all you can ask.
In 1986, now Beat Temple guitarist Gary Wade, bassist Carl Jones and singer Ralz Mathias started a band called Western Eyes in an effort to explore influences from Prince to Patti LaBelle. That band lasted three years before keyboardist Rick Thompson and the first of several drummers entered the fold to form Beat Temple, focusing the influences and fattening the sound with more instruments. Beat Temple played the Houston club circuit in the late '80s/early '90s quasi-funk revival (remember Sprawl?), and in 1991 got themselves flown to Los Angeles as one of five national finalists in the Soundcheck competition. Labels were checking the band out, not-quite-good-enough offers were put on the table, enthusiastic A&R reps were shuttled out of power positions and in the end, nothing ever came of it.
Mathias -- the charismatic frontman on whose supple pipes Beat Temple's main appeal rests -- maintains, without complaining, that he and other band members were the "victims of good advice." Everyone, it seems, had some wonderful idea or another about how to magically transform Beat Temple's hard-to-market sound into label-ready product, or at least into gimmicky short-term profits. One industry well-wisher told Mathias that he really ought to work on his splits.
Mathias didn't, and with a voice that's absorbed everyone from Stevie Wonder to Seal without mimicking, he hardly needs to. At 35, Mathias describes his singing background as "the standard church choir story," and he's transformed that raw material into a passionate presentation that's well served by the sparse instrumental machine that Beat Temple, after years of self-editing, has finally become. Hands of Mercy is filled with Sly Stone-style struts complete with "naa na na naa na na" choruses, soulful ballads and bare-bones deep-funk grooves. Chris Axelrad has settled into the drummer's seat, and he and the rest of the band stick for the most part to understated simplicity in a genre too often compromised by too many instruments trying to be too goofy all at the same time.
Mathias writes the lyrics, and here also Beat Temple diverges from current fashion. There's plenty of bad shit going down in the lives of the characters populating Beat Temple's songs, but unlike much rap -- which subscribes to the mirror theory of art and lets it go at that -- and unlike much current rock -- which wallows in all the self-created bad shit it can muster -- Beat Temple's songs have a pronounced tendency to use the bad as a launching pad for hope, or transcendence, or at least plain old perseverance. Mathias tells the story of one night, after a show, when a young man approached him at the bar to talk about the songs he'd just heard. He'd related to the situations, and he talked to Mathias for an hour about how he was going to get his act together, get back in school, make a go of it. "That's not what I'm thinking about when I sit down to write something," Mathias says, "but that's part of the whole thing."
But aside from a 1994 cassette-only release, Lemon and Honey, and a sporadic gigging schedule, "the whole thing" hasn't found its way into too many ears lately. Maybe it's the music business' fault for an excessive insistence on format-friendly bands and good-intentioned, smothering "advice." Maybe it's just that Beat Temple peaked before the band was really ready -- before it had coalesced into the confident, focused unit Hands of Mercy suggests. And maybe it doesn't matter, since, with the release of Beat Temple's first full-length CD, the band's members insist that they're only just now -- six years into the project -- laying the foundation for the future. "We feel," says Mathias, "like this is the ground floor."
Beat Temple celebrates the release of Hands of Mercy at 9 p.m., Saturday, July 22 at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Tickets are $5. For info, call 869-