Even the most suspicious observer would have to admit that integrity is not entirely unknown in rock’n’roll. The ability to maintain a principled posture toward the business of making music for any appreciable length of time, however, presents a challenge that few bands have ever proven equal to. Yet those are the shoes in which Fugazi has stood now for more than a decade, producing pure, high-intensity punk rock of rare intelligence and artistry without any concession to the tug of commercialism or the internal tensions that usually cause such high-minded organizations to implode. Staunch and vocal opponents of senseless violence, exploitation, alienation, stardom and conformity, the modest but explosive Fugazi is a knuckle sandwich made with nine-grain bread, building strong minds and bodies with rattling guitar power. The quartet’s achievement is a marvel to behold — and even better to hear.
As the longstanding figurehead and moral conscience of Washington DC’s punk scene, singer/guitarist Ian MacKaye has led the Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Egg Hunt and Embrace; the flagship of the mighty Dischord label (which he co-founded), Fugazi is the culmination of it all. The band’s impressive debut, a seven-song 12-inch, blends a classic DC-core sensibility with a mature, objective outlook and crisply produced mid-tempo songs that are dynamic, aggressive and accessible. “Waiting Room,” an especially catchy shoutalong, employs a call-and-response vocal arrangement that has scant punk precedent. Both MacKaye and former Rites of Spring vocalist Guy Picciotto trade raw emotionalism for an introspective, almost poetic vision, using abstractions in strongly structured compositions like “Bulldog Front” and “Give Me the Cure,” a contemplation on death. MacKaye’s and Picciotto’s combined abilities give the quartet a rare strength; the two singer/songwriters complement each other perfectly.
Margin Walker — another 12-inch, this one with a deeply distasteful cover photo — illustrates just how far Fugazi’s four have traveled from their hardcore beginnings. The bracing EP oozes confidence — in MacKaye’s melodic guitar work, the tight, fluid rhythm section, the incisive lyrics and the sharply arranged vocal exchanges. The songs are great, from the raging title track to the funky Gang of Fourish verses and poppy chorus of “And the Same” to the thickly chorded “Lockdown.” Continuing to develop the stylings he began with Minor Threat, MacKaye manages to make the expletives in the vigorously monotonal, part spoken “Promises” sound somewhat eloquent.
Fugazi put the relatively slick sound of Margin Walker up on blocks and stripped it down to the bare essentials for the group’s first full-length LP. Repeater is a blueprint for the post-hardcore world, a stunning and adventurous new stage in Fugazi’s growth. The title track, which is indicative of the album, offers a more powerful three-minute burst than anything on the first two records: a dizzying bassline, speedy, powerful drumming and a repetitive squeal that is barely recognizable as guitar. Repeater‘s only disappointment is its weak lyrics; both MacKaye and Picciotto do a lot of finger-pointing at Joe Average. Still, the overzealous pontification doesn’t distract overly from what is otherwise an amazing album. (13 Songs combines Fugazi and Margin Walker on one CD; the disc of Repeater adds the 3 Songs 7-inch from 1990.)
Opening in a wobbly haze of feedback and then shifting to a temperate rock groove, Steady Diet of Nothing sets up a dichotomy between razorblade ferocity and methodical determination; pulling firmly with one hand and jabbing angrily with the other, Fugazi opens the door to a world of mixed emotions and conflicting impulses. The pressure instilled by the band’s ability to hold itself to an economical beat and escaping shards of tense guitar is barely relieved by the stormy whorls of flat-out aggression into which they typically feed. (The instrumental “Steady Diet” whips the latter into a dangerous froth.) Armed with a unique guitar sound — a loose-stringed jangle like an electrified fence being plucked — and the urgent power of singing that makes excellent use of ordinary voices, Picciotto and MacKaye address pointed lyrical concerns from oblique angles, throwing enigmatic surprises into songs to confound easy comprehension. “Latin Roots,” for instance, which appears simply enough to be about a sexual encounter, makes a dramatic issue of parents: “It’s time to meet your makers.” Fugazi’s avoidance of obvious topics (except for the sketchy breakup of “Long Division” and “Dear Justice Letter,” which is addressed directly to the Supreme Court’s William Brennan) gives its songs depth and timelessness. Unlike most punk anthems, the haiku-like lyrics of “Exit Only” will probably still convey the same meaning 20 years from now.
Harsher in tone and less controlled in the body and in the mind, In on the Killtaker drops the dynamic reins to unleash the furies in forcefields like “Facet Squared,” “Rend It,” “Great Cop” and “Smallpox Champion.” Relying on less ambitiously structured songs and giving too little thought to how they’re presented, Fugazi ironically proves that more is less. By paying too little attention to the low-energy levels at which the band so eminently functions, the roaring waves of scrabbly rock lose their stinging impact. The feedback squeals and rumbles that end “23 Beats Off” could be anybody’s, and that’s a dishonor for this band. Thanks to the biographical “Cassavetes,” the album isn’t a total disappointment: in a spectacular and ominous convocation of stuttering beats squeezed between ascendant guitar sweeps and falling bolts of metallic lightning, the song has everything — tension, contrast, imagination — its neighbors lack.
Red Medicine is an entirely different animal. Making punk aggression only one of several stylistic elements while fighting to free itself from the simple constraints of song form, Fugazi brings unprecedented dynamic range, four-letter words and previously unimagined elements — clattering musique concrète on “Do You Like Me,” muso guitar twitterings on “Latest Disgrace,” piano and sound effects on the stringy “Birthday Pony,” murky dub and lancing sax in “Version,” the loose-limbed jammy funk of “Combination Lock” — into an ambitious, experimental format that raises more stylistic questions than it answers. Although the album hardly supports its assertion, “Target” gets into what may be bugging the band: the song holds the proliferation of predatory commercial generation-rockers responsible for exploiting innocents and generally spoiling things. “I realize I hate the sound of guitars / A thousand grudging young millionaires / Forcing silence sucking sound…so open I can smell your heart / You’re a target.” That’s a tricky position for a rock band to take, and Fugazi wisely doesn’t dwell on it. For all its attempted adventurism, however, the album comes across with strong songs anyway: “Bed for the Scraping,” the monstrous feedback power of “By You,” the demi-pop of “Forensic Scene,” the hardcore intensity of “Downed City” and the near balladry of “Fell, Destroyed.” Red Medicine is quizzical, uneven and therapeutic, a clear dividing line between the old Fugazi and…
End Hits sent shudders of dread and rumor through the punk community — was Fugazi announcing its demise? (Was Ian the walrus, or was it Guy?) The title, as it turns out, signaled an end to the old way of doing things, of crankin’ out “the hits.” Here, Fugazi continues down the evolutionary sonic path first carved out on Red Medicine, except with more focus and even less reliance on the formulaic punk chug of their own invention. Sure, there are still occasional forays into more or less standard Fugazi: “Five Corporations” features familiar MacKaye vitriol, thick syllables barely spat through gnashing teeth over a propulsive palm-muted string-driven thing. But that track is the exception. The beginning of “No Surprise” is more typical here: several chords ring out, building momentum until MacKaye looses an epic scream and then….a drum hit, a snaky guitar line, drums that swing. This isn’t your dad’s post-core. Similar restraint is evident in the slacker ennui anthem “Close Captioned,” in which threatening crescendos build to sighs rather than shouts. When the band does go full bore, at the end of “Foreman’s Dog” and in the instrumental “Arpeggiator,” the effect is that much more staggering. The sonic shift doesn’t always work — “Pink Frosty” sags under its own slow, bassy weight, and “F/D” feels unfinished — but in doing away with lockstep punk, Fugazi created an album full of tough, varied, well-written songs that shrug off expectations in favor of continued evolution and challenge.
Director Jem Cohen’s Instrument, a feature film about the band, was released in 1999. Although the soundtrack album consists in large part of demos (mostly for End Hits) and instrumentals, it offers a wealth of often-fascinating material, including the chance to hear familiar songs done at unfamiliar speeds. “Slo Crostic” eases the frantic pace of “Caustic Acrostic,” and “Pink Frosty” gains cohesion as it moves along at a speedier clip, shedding the drone of the album recording. The non-demo tracks find the band in various moods, ranging from the sped-up/down tape silliness of “Me and Thumbelina” to the melancholy of the piano-driven “I’m So Tired” (who knew that Ian could sing?). Nowhere near as vital as a studio album, but worth hearing.
The Argument, Fugazi’s sixth proper album, seamlessly combines the hushed restraint and increased attention to songwriting that featured so prominently on Red Medicine and End Hits with the punk howl and ferocity of the band’s early days. The changes are evident, but always fit right into the soundscape: the strings on “Cashout,” the female backing vocals on “Life and Limb” (which nods to Dischord labelmates Lungfish by creating a whole song out of few hypnotically repetitive riffs), the auxiliary drums on “Ex-Spectator.” Picciotto’s distinctive wail is comforting in its familiarity and bite during the verses of “Full Disclosure,” but he keeps going and going and going, the words “I want out” becoming more alien with each repetition until the chorus kicks in with a wall of saccharine “ooooooooh”s reminiscent of the British Invasion. Weren’t these guys a hardcore band or something? “Epic Problem” sounds like Fugazi-by-numbers, but with two extra dance-defeating beats tacked onto the end of the breakdown section. The song builds then goes quiet as Ian whispers, somewhere in the background, that he’s got an epic problem. Fugazi’s increasing musical lexicon is quite the opposite.
Furniture, a three-song EP released at the same time as The Argument, contains a concert standby which harks back to the early days of the band, an instrumental and a prototypical Guy blazer. A footnote to the band’s most successful and cohesive album, Fugazi proves they can still rock it for (and like) the kids.