CD Review

Fire Engines, Hungry Beat (Acute)

Cited by Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie and Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos as inspirations for their own bands, Scotland's Fire Engines burned briefly but thrice as brightly as most other groups of their time (1980-81). Their oeuvre amounted to merely 18 tracks, but it is, as they say, all good.

Hungry Beat fills the gnawing Fire Engines void since Rev-ola's 1992 Fond compendium went out of print more than a decade ago (you can ignore the sonically poor Codex Teenage Premonition CD that Domino issued in 2005) and saves you the financial woe and time drain of tracking down the group's original vinyl. The 16 songs assembled here exemplify the raucous energy and exploratory, mutant pop sensibilities that pervaded the U.K.'s post-punk diaspora. After punk's initial promise receded and its sonic reductionism proved to be too stifling, scores of British musicians sought new modes of rock (and funk and jazz and electronic) expression.

Fire Engines—Davy Henderson (voice, guitar), Graham Main (bass), Murray Slade (guitar) and Russell Burn (drums)—used Captain Beefheart's Magic Band's guitar sound as their foundation: a frazzled, rusty-door-hinge tonality. But instead of vitally bastardizing the blues and angling rock into impossibly knotty math equations as the Magic Band did, Fire Engines accelerated no-wave rock to a burnt-orange blur, with Henderson yelping about consumerism's pleasures and pitfalls and relationship power struggles. He commanded people to "get up and use me" as if he were just one more product.

The band's streamlined attack could be naggingly catchy and even orchestrally grandiose, as in their shambling-pop classic "Candyskin," which blows up Beefheart's "Sweet Sweet Bulbs" to a soaring, citrusy symphony. At the other end of their aural spectrum, Fire Engines forged splenetic, frenetic funk freakouts that often gave you more than enough cowbell (and adrenalin) for one lifetime. These Edinburgh firebrands dug so relentlessly into their grooves, you expect their instruments to combust, or for the CD to gyrate out of your player.

The final single, "Big Gold Dream," signaled a more accessible and slicker approach, which Henderson later took to the British charts with his Win project. But Fire Engines are best when at their most raw, when creating chase-scene scores for people more into No New York than King of New York and making lopsided funk for folks who have one leg shorter than the other and prefer to get on the baaaad foot. Their uniqueness flames on more than a quarter-century later.

 
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