Monuments To Excess
Rough Trade, 1990
File under: When Berkeley met D.C.
Related artists: Fugazi, Monsula, Samiam, Jawbreaker
Until a shitball alt-rock band broke through in 1998 and besmirched the name, Fuel was best remembered as melodic-punk outfit from the Bay Area, but with its sights set decidedly eastward–namely, Washington, D.C., and the scene that had grown around Dischord Records. Fuel's music and politics bore the influence so openly that the band earned the nickname "Fuelgazi."
Listening to the group's only full-length, 1990's Monuments To Excess, it's easy to hear why. The album's jagged post-punk–anchored by guitarists-vocalists Mike Kirsch and Jim Allison–borrowed liberally from the Fugazi model: guitars that alternately smoldered and exploded; a tight, propulsive rhythm section; and two vocalists from the Melodic Shouting School of Vocal Performance. Fuel's songs favored a more straightforward approach than Fugazi, who liked to twist structure and rhythm. Even in 1990, circa Repeater, Fugazi was well on its way to harnessing the power in restraint and understatement. But there's only one Fugazi, and Fuel's simpler style gave their songs extra oomph.
Opener "Disengaged" spells it out quickly: a muted five-chord guitar riff builds with a kick drum pounding quarter notes. The verse intensifies through a chorus hammered home by Kirsch and Allison yelling "jus-ti-fy, jus-ti-fy our-selves!" at the end of every other line. The second chorus segues into a breakdown where Allison and Kirsch echo each other: "Disengaged with a cynical pride the way that we were taught / quite satisfied, full denied, we sit back and watch." Everything kicks back in as the pair howls, "And I don't want to live my life like that / I don't want to live a life like that!" before the song ends abruptly.
As I mentioned in my original Vinyl Retentive about Pinhead Gunpowder–in which Kirsch played briefly following Fuel–this was a scene that took itself and its politics very, very seriously. And Fuel was no exception; Monuments To Excess is wall to wall Music With A Message. "This ain't a simple message with a catchy refrain / not here for your amusement or just to entertain" begins "Actualized" (which Sleater-Kinney's "Entertain" echoed 15 years later on The Woods). The chorus of "The Name Is…": "The name is…hatred! / for what you don't even understand / the name is… fear! / of what you can't even comprehend." There's "Why Can't You See": "So get off your ass and take a stand / stop telling me the world has done all it can!"
Didact much? But Fuel didn't come across as obnoxious P.C. scolds, just earnest guys who wanted their music to do more than start pits at 924 Gilman Street. You can't begrudge bands who take themselves seriously because they believe so fervently in the transformative power of music. Also important, Fuel never lost sight of the music end of that equation: The moment The Message takes precedence over the music, it's all over. Of course, Fuel maybe wasn't around long enough for that to be much of a danger.
Formed in 1989 by Kirsch and Allison, Fuel would be gone a year and a half later, a brief lifespan typical of the bands at the time that burned bright and burned out quickly. Their prolificacy was typical of the time as well; while plenty of bands diddle around their first year and a half of existence, Fuel released a number of 7-inches, an album, and did their share of live performances. The original 1990 version of Monuments featured 12 tracks, though subsequent reissues around the mid-'90s and 2000 collected all of Fuel's released material, swelling the album to nearly 20 songs, including a couple alternate versions of songs that appeared on the album.
Incidentally, the legal team representing the other Fuel–the one responsible for that staple of shitty modern-rock stations everywhere, "Shimmer"–rattled their sabers at the former members of the good Fuel in the late '90s. This despite the fact that Sucky Fuel was supposedly known as "Small The Joy" until 1994. Classy, guys.
Current whereabouts: Kirsch still lives in the Bay Area and plays in a band called Baader Brains. Bassist Aaron Arroyo and drummer Jeff Stofan remained active in Bay Area music as well. After Fuel, Allison moved back to his native Canada, where he pursued a career in law.
Album availability: Monuments To Excess has gone in and out of print at least a few times since 1990. The vinyl version remains unavailable, but the longer CD version is still available from Broken Rekids and iTunes. The album's Amazon and iTunes pages are full of funny and sweetly defensive testimonials from fans bashing the alt-rock Fuel.
Key tracks: "Disengaged," "Cue To You," "Take Effect," "The Name Is…"