The two greatest punk rock records of the past 15 years: Exploding Hearts’ Guitar Romantic and The Fuses’ I Wanna Burn. Whatever is at #3 is not even close. But the race for #1 is a dead heat.
Everyone knows and loves the Exploding Hearts, but rare is the individual with knowledge of The Fuses’ greatness. Formed out of the ashes of the highly underrated pop-punk quartet Webster, The Fuses came tearing out of Baltimore in 1997 – the last year their hometown Orioles would win the AL East. And just like closer Randy Myers, The Fuses brought the heat. Brendan Bartow (guitar), Kevin Trowel (guitar), and Lee Ashlin (drums) recruited ex-Thumb Mark Minnig (later replaced by Pete Ross), and The Fuses were born. Webster, unlike typical pop-punk bands of its day, had a harder-edged, Descendents-influenced sound. So it wasn’t at all a stretch for three quarters of the band to evolve into something more straight-up punk rock. Yet “straight-up” punk rock seems a woefully inadequate summation of The Fuses! If you threw The Clash’s self-titled LP, Wire’s Pink Flag, and The Adolescents’ blue album into a blender, tossed in a teaspoon of ‘90s melodic punk, and served it with a heaping side portion of pre-millennial anxiety, you’d get The Fuses. Debut EP “New Bomb” arrived in late ’97 and was so immediately mind-blowing that I can still tell you where I was when I first heard it (standing in front of the counter at the Angry, Young, and Poor record shop in Lancaster, PA, my mouth hanging wide open). I waited with ridiculous, childlike anticipation for a full-length –which arrived a few months later. I was not disappointed.
When you think late ‘90s punk revival, you think of groups slavishly imitating both the sound and the image of their 1977 heroes. I’m not going to say there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I made my name celebrating that. It’s just that while The Fuses were doing something similar to those other bands, they were also doing something very, very different. For while The Fuses did combine the warp-speed melodies of early ‘80s California hardcore, the outside-the-box strangeness of first generation art-punk, and the wildfire urgency of The Clash, Dils, et al, they did so without coming off as copyists or even revivalists. With the exception of the blatant “Blank Generation” homage of “I Think They’ve Got My Number”, the songs on I Wanna Burn are remarkably non-derivative. Influences are hinted at but never made obvious, and all in all The Fuses fashioned a highly original take on classic punk rock – a true updating of the ’77 sound for the ’97 world. It was an odd time for our planet – technology was rapidly advancing, people thought the world was about to end, fat-free cheese had just gone mainstream, and Jerry Springer was the biggest thing on television. Everyday life was bizarre if not ominous, and along came The Fuses to tap into the tenor of the times. Here was a band that carried the icy, sci-fi ish overtones of Gang of Four or Mission of Burma yet delivered them with a staccato adrenaline rush that would have made the Ramones or even Lemmy proud. This was the future, this was the past, this was the present – punk music as visceral and aggressive as it was moody and angular.
But really, who cares about originality? A band can have all the originality in the world, but if the music’s not good, the creativity is pointless. Would you really rather listen to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music than jam to The Riverdales? So if we’re going to hail I Wanna Burn, it’s gotta be because it’s a great record, and not because of its novelty and social context 12 years ago. So let it be said: I Wanna Burn is an incredible record, chock full of catchy, perfectly-constructed punk songs played at a delirious pace with fire, force, and feeling. It hits with the power and determination of Bo Jackson barreling over Brian Bosworth on Monday Night Football while offering up hooks bigger than Geico’s advertising budget. Ashlin’s drumming is relentless and tight, setting a lightning pace for the Trowel/Bartow guitars, which crash into each other like raygun fire in a space war. Trowel and Bartow emote dread, discomfort, and frantic desperation on lead vocals, bringing it like their lives depended on it. Debut single “New Bomb” is wisely included, joined by equally inspired tunes like “Jesus on the Beach”, “Dead Air Beat”, and the scintillating title track. A vinyl reissue in 1999 tacked on an absolutely ferocious cover of Joy Division's “Warsaw”, punked-up to the max.
The good year 1997 was sadly a last hurrah for Baltimore’s Orioles. The team missed the World Series by two games, but a roster filled with aging stars (Jimmy Key, Cal Ripken) and notorious juicers (Brady Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro) was not built to last. The O’s haven’t been to the post-season since. Baltimore’s Fuses, however, were just getting started in ’97. The group would indulge its love for classic post-punk and art-punk, evolving rapidly and challenging its fans to keep up. A second LP, Are Lies, came out in 2000, followed by a third album Eastern Cities, released five years ago by Shit Sandwich Records. Did Our Lies prove to be a worthy follow-up to the greatness of I Wanna Burn? Did The Fuses sustain their early excellence for the long term? Is there more than one title in this band’s catalog that you absolutely have to own? Stay tuned to this blog, and you may get the answer!