After leading the D.C. hardcore scene with his band Minor Threat, Ian MacKaye formed the far superior Fugazi with former Rites Of Spring leader Guy Picciotto. The pairing was an inspired match, as Picciotto's somewhat hoarse, paranoid singing style forms a nice contrast with MacKaye's powerfully shouted bellow. The duo share lead vocals almost equally, with both joining in for some call and response vocals from time to time as well. No mere sidemen, drummer Brendan Canty (also ex-Rites Of Spring, whose lone self-titled album is often credited with starting the "emo" genre) and bassist Joe Lally are simply one of the tightest, most versatile, and flat out best rhythm sections ever, with Lally's bass often functioning as the lead instrument while MacKaye and Picciotto's edgy, jagged guitars surge around the main melody as Canty unleashes a cacophonous assault on his drum kit. Actually, only MacKaye plays guitar on Fugazi (Picciotto only sings), the EP that forms the first 7 of these 13 Songs, the rest being comprised of the band's second EP, Margin Walker, by which time Picciotto had joined in as a much needed second guitarist. Not that Fugazi is lacking in any way; quite the contrary, as songs such as "Waiting Room" (probably the band’s most famous song), "Bulldog Front," "Give Me The Cure," and "Suggestion" are pretty much all instant classics. Rather than revel in the spectacularly fast paced sounds that represented hardcore's past, this forward thinking band slows things down (which might initially put off fans of Minor Threat, but only temporarily, I'd venture), emphasizing loud-quiet/stop-start dynamics and embracing a diverse musicality that bursts past the restricting confines of hardcore. For example, "Provisional" is highly melodic and almost psychedelic in places, while "Promises" serves as a moody album closer that's almost gothic in tone. As would come to be expected, the band are all business, delivering direct lyrics such as “you can’t be what you were, so you better start being just what you are," as well as other socially conscious (“we have a responsibility to use all of our abilities”) and confrontational (pro-feminist rant: “why can’t I walk down the street free of suggestion?”) tidbits. The band isn't completely without a sense of humor, however, which is borne out by alternately throwaway and clever lines like "promises are shit" and "it's pointless to walk when it's past time to run." Besides, it's the angular guitars, driving, funky rhythms, and intense vocals that really leave a lasting impression, and though perhaps a few songs here are less memorable than others (additional highlights include "And The Same" and "Burning Too"), this fairly accessible yet still edgy collection works as a fine introduction to a terrific band.
Repeater + 3 Songs (Dischord ’90) Rating: A
Rock music’s most principled band came back with a vengeance on their first proper non-compilation full-length album, which on the whole is more consistently creative than 13 Songs, maintaining an incredible intensity throughout (“like an aural hand grenade,” I once read somewhere, though I can’t recall where). Fugazi pare down their sound to the bare essentials, and there are some truly thrilling moments (2:47 of “Turnover”; :38 of “Blueprint”; 1:26 of “Reprovisional”), particularly with the guitars, which are more pronounced and creative than previously. I mean, how in the world did they come up with those squealing dentist drill riffs on the title track, which they follow up with one of their most melodic and catchy choruses? As usual, Ian’s songs are more likely to be catchy, shouted anti-anthems, while the Guy sung songs generally feature churning rhythms and a more tightly coiled intensity. Perhaps there are some songs that could be more fully developed, and the longer, more atmospheric finale “Shut The Door” doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the album. Additionally, the band’s even preachier than usual lyrics shoot at rather obvious targets (as the Trouser Press Guide puts it, they do “a lot of finger-pointing at Joe Average”), but the band’s consistently great grooves and the album’s seamless flow (until the last song) overwhelms its shortcomings. This is really powerful stuff, performed by excellent musicians, and Repeater is that rare album whose whole adds up to more than the sum of its impressive individual parts. For added value, the band includes their earlier 3 Songs EP; “Song #1” is of a similarly high quality, while “Joe #1” and “Break In” are less substantial but still worth hearing. Of course, giving their fans something for nothing is nothing new for Fugazi. After all, they have their own Dischord record label, giving them complete artistic control, and I have yet to see a Fugazi album or concert ticket priced at over ten dollars. This is a band who looks out for their fans, who in turn have shown their appreciation by making sure that Fugazi's albums sell well beyond what most indie bands aspire to. They’re a band that’s well worth supporting, especially since their increasingly inspired songs continue to advance the parameters of edgy modern day music.
Steady Diet Of Nothing (Dischord ’91) Rating: B+
According to Guy Picciotto, this was the first album the band tried to self-produce, and it's also the one they feel most ambivalent about. Of course, it's all relative, as this is another very good Fugazi album, though it takes a few spins to sink in. Even then, this more laid-back venture never reaches the excitement or intensity of Repeater or 13 Songs. I mean, "Exit Only" is a solid album opener, but it's a far cry from phenomenal former first blasts such as "Waiting Room" and "Turnover." It's still quite good, however, and "Reclamation" is even better, with powerful doubled up riffs awash in a Sonic Youth-inspired dissonance (that band's influence is apparent throughout the album) and a catchy chanted chorus from MacKaye. A shouted chorus also appears on "Stacks," as does their unique, razor sharp guitar sound, while "Latin Roots" features interesting lyrics and a great anthemic ending. The albums two best songs are arguably "Nice New Outfit," which is almost poppy in places (recalling Superchunk), and "Steady Diet," an incredible instrumental on which the jagged, churning guitars are again wrapped in dissonance, all behind spectacular sledgehammer rhythms. Other Fugazi trademarks such as fractured stop and start rhythms, sober lyrics, and consistent quality (Fugazi don't do outright filler) appear, but side two features a few lesser songs, and the album as a whole comes and goes without punching you in the gut quite like you'd expect. Then again, had a lesser band released this I'd be extolling its considerable virtues, but (again according to Picciotto) "we were all pretty fried" when making the album, and as such it lacks some of the thrilling urgency and excitement of the band's very best work.
In On The Kill Taker (Dischord ’93) Rating: A-
I read somewhere that Steve Albini was present at some of the sessions for this album, which is fitting given its Albini-esque level of abrasiveness. The corrosive guitars and dissonant melodies make In On The Kill Taker the most "difficult" Fugazi album to date, as few songs stand out at first. Actually, several listens later it'll probably still be a bit of a blur, as much like Repeater (but even more so) this album is more about its overall sound than its songs. Fortunately, Fugazi often surge with a spectacular wall of sound (I think they'd been listening to Loveless as well as wearing out Sonic Youth's SST records), and as usual the lyrics are really interesting and slightly offbeat (songs starring John Cassavetes and Christopher Walken, for example). Sure, I miss the shouted, chanted choruses, which appear only briefly at the end of "Smallpox Champion," but the band's HUGE sound (love those razor sharp power drill riffs) on songs such as "Rend It" offers thrilling compensation. In addition, the album is enhanced by smart pacing; for example, placing the comparatively mellow and melodic "Sweet And Low" after "23 Beats Off," an expansive Sonic Youth-inspired jam session. For all my talk about the album's explosive aural assaults, it should be noted that much of the music features sparse instrumentation, and there are more than a few mellow moments before the inevitable eruptions. All of which makes In On The Kill Taker less one-dimensional than it would seem at first, though it's still a far cry from the relatively accessible (but inferior) Steady Diet Of Nothing. It's 42-minute running time is just about right, too, and for all it's flaws (few memorable individual songs, a somewhat grating vocal from Picciotto on "Cassavetes," and "Last Chance For A Slow Dance" ends the album anti-climatically) when taken as a whole In On The Kill Taker is a vital Fugazi release on which their throttling guitar assault and stellar rhythm section are perfectly in sync.
Red Medicine (Dischord ’95) Rating: A-
When I want to hear Fugazi relentlessly rock out I'll probably put on Repeater or In On The Kill Taker, but when I want to hear Fugazi at their most far ranging and experimental I'm likely to go for Red Medicine. In going through the Fugazi catalogue it's hard not to notice that each high quality album is easily identifiable as Fugazi yet distinctly different from one another, and much of the material on Red Medicine is unlike anything the band had ever done before. The atonal racket that introduces the album on "Do You Like Me" immediately let's the listener know that this would be something different, yet soon afterwards when the guitars get almost jangly it's another reminder that Fugazi can still write memorably melodic tunes as well. Still, this is another "difficult" album that takes even more listens than usual to appreciate. However, the rewards are well worth it, and there is some fairly straightforward Fugazi to be had, such as "Bed For The Scraping," whose guitars are almost synth-like, and "Back To Base" and "Downed City," a couple of hard charging rockers. Elsewhere, we get some moody low-fi instrumental passages and even a couple of stellar instrumentals. "Combination Lock" is led by Canty's bottomed out sound, which leads the band's often-skeletal attack throughout the album, yet the melodic riffs are also an attraction, while "Version" is the real shocker, being the type of chilly (guitar less!) instrumental that Eno and Bowie could've concocted in Berlin way back when. "Forensic Scene" and "Fell, Destroyed" could almost be called mellow and could definitely be called moody (despite Picciotto's poppy-ish vocals on the latter), while "Target" and "Long Distance Runner" are other high points. These songs are also the most easily quotable (the bands lyrics being somewhat more inscrutable than usual this time around, which is perhaps fitting given that the music is far more important than the vocals on this album), with the former railing against mainstream punk rockers ("I realize that I hate the sound of guitars, a thousand grudging young millionaires") and the latter ending the album with this memorable tidbit: "if I stop to catch my breath, I might catch a piece of death." Yet despite whatever midlife crisis the band is going through, they sound as vital as ever. It's not a perfect album, as "Birthday Pony" kinda comes and goes, the last minute of the otherwise cathartic "By You" stays too long, MacKaye sings only four songs, and like I said before the album is more a grower rather than something you're likely to instantly fall in love with. However, as is usually the case with Fugazi, the album's plusses absolutely overwhelm its negatives. For one thing, Fugazi have adopted a looser sound, as they've learned to let the spaces between the notes breathe while losing none of their overall intensity, and they're also using the "studio as instrument" far more than ever before. Perhaps the album, which is awfully hard to describe, falls short of being great, and it's definitely not the place to start with Fugazi. Still, it's a fascinating release on which Fugazi really expanded their repertoire, as above all else they remain a cool band with a knack for making cool sounds.
End Hits (Dischord ’98) Rating: B+
After a relatively long 3 year layoff, during which I'd venture that the band soaked up the sounds of "post rock" bands such as Slint, Tortoise, and The Sea and Cake, Fugazi returned with End Hits, which continued the experimental path first plowed on Red Medicine but with slightly less inspired results. Don't get me wrong, there's still a fair amount of Fugazi "moments" (the pulverizing intro to "Five Corporations," for example) and hard charging rockers. However, the band's embrace of slower songs and pretty guitar passages, which goes hand in hand with the album's hollow, echoed production, invites accusations of self-indulgent pretentiousness. Granted, these guys have always been undersold in the guitar hero department, and there's no denying their gorgeous tones on "Closed Captioned," but (perhaps for the first time) Fugazi loses their focus at times, and some of MacKaye/Picciotto's guitar dabblings on "Floating Boy," "Pink Frosty," and "F/D" could even be called boring. Sure, "Break," "No Surprise," "Foreman's Dog," and "Arpeggiator" are first rate Fugazi, and even the lesser songs here have their moments (remember, Fugazi don't do outright filler), as Fugazi attempt to transverse that fine line between experimentation and accessibility. As might be expected of such experienced and talented practitioners, most of the time Fugazi walk that dangerous tightrope just fine, but when judged against their past output and my own high expectations I'd say that this is their least immediate (again, primarily due to the low-key post rock influence, which is prominent) and most patchy album to date. An especially disappointing album trait is the decreasing vocal presence of MacKaye, who more and more is becoming merely a change of pace as Picciotto assumes the lion's share of the vocal duties. The album is also notable for its many stops and starts, as you'll often think a song is over before it abruptly begins again, sometimes from a vastly different place. In summary, along with Steady Diet Of Nothing this is probably the least acclaimed Fugazi album, and I can see why as I feel the least strongly about them myself, though there's still some fine stuff here for such a "lesser" effort.
The Argument (Dischord ’01) Rating: A
After releasing a mostly instrumental soundtrack album, Instrument Soundtrack, which I've yet to acquire, Fugazi released The Argument to quite a bit of critical acclaim. Whereas Red Medicine and End Hits had come and gone under the radar, people noticed The Argument, as it appeared on many year-end critic lists. And with good reason, as The Argument takes the best bits of the last two albums while adding some more pop elements and other stuff to come up with what is arguably the definitive Fugazi album. Or at least this is their best late period album (the shouted choruses and call and response vocal tradeoffs that so defined their early work seem to have disappeared) in the way that it adds past elements together while adding new wrinkles. For example, "Full Disclosure," "Epic Problem," "The Kill," "Oh," and "Nightshop" could each be called poppy in places (some tracks even feature female backing vocals), though sometimes that pop element appears only briefly, while "Argument" could almost be called pure pop (surprisingly it's sung by MacKaye). Elsewhere, songs such as the musically mysterious "Life And Limb" and the spacey "The Kill" (sung by Lally, whose bass also leads the way, as is often the case) have slower tempos that recall End Hits, while "Strangelight" and "Nightshop" also feature whispered vocals - before they take off in different directions altogether, that is. By contrast, Ian screams his head off on "Epic Problem," one of several songs on which the drumming is incredible, in part due to the presence of Jerry Busher, who helps Canty out on 7 of the 11 tracks. Indeed, when the band get it going full throttle on several songs here ("Cashout," "Full Disclosure" and "Epic Problem" form an awesome 2-3-4 punch, for example) they've rarely sounded so imposing, nor have their (very) soft to (VERY) loud dynamics struck me as being so extreme. Fugazi show their funky side on "Cashout" and "Oh," similar wailing guitar tones the likes of which I've never heard before on a Fugazi album appear on "Ex-Spectator" and "Argument," and "Oh" even has a Led Zeppelin-like guitar interjection. So, as you can see, there's lots going on here, as no song ends up quite where it begins (except for song #1, a brief 52 second “Intro” featuring a droning cello), even the ones that share certain characteristics (if only at certain times). Still, the band's tight musicianship and constant creativity link each of these songs. Sure, I could complain about a general lack of easy accessibility (would it be a Fugazi album if it wasn't challenging?), and Picciotto's vocals at the beginning of the otherwise excellent "Full Disclosure" are awfully annoying. I'm also not always in the mood to listen to their social/political rants, and perhaps they sometimes try to cram too many ideas into each and every song. Yet these minor flaws are the result of the band's spectacular ambition, and true creative growth is ultimately achieved, as this alternately mellow and (mostly) rocking album shows off all sides of the Fugazi experience. Simply put, Fugazi continue to make Fugazi albums, and nobody else makes Fugazi music, making The Argument an album to cherish, especially since Fugazi albums are getting fewer and far between. Are Fugazi one of the best alternative rock bands of the past 15 years? You'll get no argument from me.
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