Modern rock quartet Fuel, probably the most volatile export to come from Central Pennsylvania since the invention of strip mining, fired up a sold-out crowd of K-Rock kids at Irving Plaza in NYC on March 27, 1999 with a piston pounding set of arena ready alterna-anthems that was almost everything a great show should be. Almost. Despite locomotive loud volume, lockstep tight rhythms and near combustible energy levels, Fuel's show failed to satisfy in the same way that an Arch Deluxe leaves you wishing you'd gotten the Quarter Pounder with Cheese. For Fuel, a band that's been called "Rock'n'Roll for Grown-ups," the comparison is all too telling.
It's hard to pin down exactly where the Fuel-some foursome, on tour to support their CD Sunburn (550 Music, a development subsidiary of Sony), start to run out of gas. The Harrisburg-based band kicks out a fully professional set of jams, brings enough lights to fire up a monster truck rally and even dabbles in dynamic excursions of volume and tone that can pack as many as six songs in one. In the image department, their look was sharp, "Like a well dressed D-Generation" was how the ever fashion conscious Jet Set Jenna described the group's threatening threads and freshly spiked, bleached and shaved hair hopping.
Singer Brett Scallions, in particular, had a potent presence that kept all eyes on him throughout the set. Trouble is poor Brett didn't have much to say lyrically. An album with a song called "Untitled," still needs some work. In concert, Scallion's harsh vocal style, think Kurt Cobain with a sore throat, made it doubly difficult to decipher exactly what he and the boys are so upset about. Maybe they're simply frustrated over not having anything new to say.
Sunburn is a follow up to Fuel's respectably successful self-produced 1996 debut disc Porcelain of which the band managed to unload some 10,000 copies throughout their Boston to Washington, DC touring territory. On disc, Scallion's vocals are much clearer, a carton of kudos to producer Steven Haigler for refining Brett's vocals and the group's over driven omni-depressant sound into something resembling songs. Fuel expend near nuclear quantities of energy to blend muscle-bound rhythms, excessively effected guitars and passionately lugubrious lyrics. Many tunes are directed to a girl known simply as "she" who must have done quite a tap dance of death on the hearts of these God-forsaken country boys. Such wrist-slitting posturing wouldn't be so tragic if there were at least one chorus catchy enough to shout along to or remember for more than 30 seconds after the sun goes down on Sunburn.
Ample opportunity is given to Fuel's sole songwriter, guitarist and occasional vocalist Carl Bell to shine out during quiet moments and solo sections of the Sunburn CD and in the band's live show. But Bell's riffs just don't rock, no matter how much flange, delay, distortion, echo and extra kitchen-sink parts he heaps upon them. When the spotlight hits him, Carl's metallic touch turns to lead and it becomes obtusely obvious Fuel needs an octane booster in the form of a real lead guitar player a la Slash, Dimebag Darrell or Kirk Hammet who could interpret the group's amped up angst into something emotionally and musically compelling.
To Fuel's credit, they did fire off at least one round with true armor-piercing power. "Jesus or a Gun," a disturbing declaration of ordinary madness and life's exhausting expectations, is Sunburns deepest cut. Bell's words and music come together with brutal beauty as he details the feelings of more and more people who feel drawn to their higher power of choice, be it supreme being or superior firepower. With sufficient airplay and a buzz-bin video "Jesus or a Gun" could easily become the theme song of postal workers and disgruntled employees everywhere.
Despite its attempts at balls-out bluster, Sunburn drones along leaving the listener with lingering feelings of despair and hopelessness. This is not really my idea of a swell time. Bell has described his songwriting process as being like therapy as he illustrates his life and what he sees going on around him. That said, maybe he needs a new shrink, should get the hell out of Harrisburg, or try growing some hair on his cue-ball smooth skull. Maybe it's hard to be happy when you look like you're about to go in for a lobotomy. If anything he should look to his most obvious influence, Kurt Cobain, the archetypical symbol of the tortured soul with nowhere to go but the bank to cash his royalty checks. All Kurt's pain got him was a shotgun blast to the brain. Suicide makes great press, but it's a stunt you can only pull once. Beware Carl, the "Bells" may indeed be tolling for thee.
Not all, however, is gloomy in Fuel's forecast. They packed Irving Plaza and everyone seemed to be having a great time. Solo slackers meanwhile tried to get wristband wearing adults to buy beer for them (not that I would ever participate in such irresponsiblity, unless of course the little bastards had enough money for me to get one too). In general a "party while the parents are away" atmosphere hung in the air like the first hit off a brand new bong. Personally, the glittering memory of the evening's proceedings came during Fuel's encore, when an unnamed longhaired singer came from backstage and the band took a scorching trip down AC/DC's "Highway to Hell." For the first time all night, every syllable of every great rock'n'roll lyric came through as clear as a shot of Absolute. The band at last busted out a truly rocking rhythm and the crowd's righteous response shook the room down to its landmark foundation. Now that's my kind of fuel.
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