Speaking generously, it could be said that Domino Records’ Codex Teenage Premonition compilation (2005) ignited enough interest in the brief career of Scottish post-punk band Fire Engines to warrant a second reissue of its tiny catalog in three years. To say that Domino botched the job is closer to truth.
That compilation took what was already a difficult and messy songbook and rendered it even pricklier by including only live takes with horrible fidelity. You wouldn’t have known that the Fire Engines were an influential group at all (notably one of the chief inspirations of fellow Glaswegians Franz Ferdinand) if not for the tantalizing quality of the 1981 Peel Sessions tacked onto the disc’s American version. The corrective Acute compilation, Hungry Beat, gathers Fire Engines’ songs in full, spanning all of their singles as well as the 1981 mini-album, Lubricate Your Living Room, and a handful of alternate versions. The comprehensive track list presents a group both fearless and frustrating.
Fire Engines’ two main Glaswegian contemporaries, Josef K and Orange Juice, seemed to be reacting to the Manchester post-punk sound exemplified by Joy Division. Josef K embraced the darkness with only slight revision, and Orange Juice rejected it, instead embracing sunny pop. Fire Engines bypassed the debate entirely by making music much closer to New York’s bleak no-wave movement. "Meat Whiplash" and "Get Up and Use Me" rival disco-punk savant James Chance in their ability to make violent cacophony danceable. In an odd way, the crazed yelps of singer Davey Henderson actually accentuate the tight groove. In the massive, messy "Discord," his barks and blurts seem preverbal, trying to communicate an ineffable dance-floor excitement, even though the accelerating pace won’t give him time to articulate.
Very rarely, the members of Fire Engines could marry their peculiar frenzy to a focused pop accessibility as well. "Big Gold Dream" played up the disco, with female backing singers and bounding bass line. "Candyskin" sounds like a lost hit. Its string swells, infectiously winding guitar lead, and sing-along bursts add up to one of the finest tracks of the whole era.
But this relatively short anthology stills feels padded by tense instrumentals that don’t add much to the established heavy-rhythm-plus-frayed-edges template. It seems as if the group’s brief lifespan didn’t allow for more than one or two solid ideas. At least this worthy collection gives us enough evidence to fully form that conclusion.