or the past few years, Acute Records has found its way into the curious listener’s record collection by demystifying the interstices of late-70s and early-80s post-punk. The Brooklyn label has made reissues by Glenn Branca, Ike Yard, Theoretical Girls, and others required listening for those who didn’t experience No Wave and post-punk the first time around. Acute has never been one to skimp on the small stuff, usually accompanying releases with liner notes overflowing with factoids and vintage pictures. As a result, anything the cautious record label does (having released nine albums in five years) deserves some inspection, especially the unique characteristics of their newest focus, Hungry Beat by the Fire Engines. Catalog number ACU-009.
It’s an especially timely release for a chaotic Scottish post-punk band that only lasted a year and a half in the early ‘80s. The Engines have devoted fans in Primal Scream, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and fellow Scots Franz Ferdinand, who have coaxed the band back together for shows together and released split cover singles with ‘em. This attention spurred a rarities compilation on Domino, 2006’s Codex Teenage Premonition, but Hungry Beat is the first bona-fide starter’s guide to the Fire Engines. Cobbling the band’s singles and mini-album together, Hungry Beat represents the core of the band’s output in their stunted lifetime.
Certainly a product of their environment, the Fire Engines took much of their inspiration from the No-Wave scene running concurrently in the States. Stabbing at the same dissonant funk of James Chance’s Contortions or Lizzy Mercier Descloux, the Engines play rhythm-driven punk-funk with a more playful, rawer attitude. The band dips into other contemporary shorthand, sounding on “Big Gold Dream” like an attention-deficit Magazine and often affecting the disco-punk of a dirtied little brother to Gang of Four. Bouncing around the reactionary musical shorthand that truly embodied the term post punk, the Engines material here tells the story, much like Wire’s ‘70s album trilogy, of a punk band becoming more punk by becoming more than punk.
Compared to their British contemporaries, many following the path handily beaten by Manchester’s Joy Division, the Engines seem a bunch of New York snot-noses. They were certainly listening to the same records as fellow Scots Josef K. But while the K played a music menacing enough to befit their Kafka-referencing name, the Fire Engines could never get any darker than a drunkenly happy frat-rock sound. On the other side, sunny Glaswegian colleagues Orange Juice are too refined a comparison for the sophomoric clash of Fire Engines instrumentals like “Discord.”
This gussied-up child’s play makes Hungry Beat an intriguing choice by Acute. Most of the label’s releases have affected a certain level of severity: the austere guitar dissonance of Branca’s The Ascension, the poetic dirge of Ike Yard, or even the clinical synth-punk of Metal Boys. But if Acute fans are puzzled by the inclusion of such a fun-loving group or scoffing at their resurrection at the hands of Franz Ferdinand, they probably just need a lesson in turning the brain off once in a while. For eighteen months in 1980 and 1981, four guys in Scotland tuned out good enough to deserve the rights to ACU-009.