13 Songs (Dischord, 1989)
Repeater + 3 Songs (Dischord, 1990)
Steady Diet of Nothing (Dischord, 1991)
In on the Kill Taker (Dischord, 1993)
Red Medicine (Dischord, 1995)
End Hits (Dischord, 1998)
Instrument Soundtrack (Dischord, 1999)
The Argument (Dischord, 2001)
Fugazi Live Series, Vol. 9: 9-4-93 Pontiac, Michigan, Plaza Amphitheater (Fugazi Live, 2004)
Fugazi has been such a righteous force in underground rock for so long—charging reasonable prices for concert tickets, scrupulously avoiding any taint from the corporate-level music biz—that it's easy to forget they're an actual band. But singer/guitarists Guy Picciotto (whose earlier band Rites of Spring pretty much invented emo) and Ian MacKaye (whose earlier band Minor Threat was the formal pinnacle of hardcore) and the mighty rhythm section of Brendan Canty and Joe Lally are a staggeringly powerful combination. For a decade-and-a-half, they challenged themselves and their audience constantly, giving some of the hemisphere's hardest punk rock an increasingly arty, thoughtful spin.
Compiling two early EPs, 13 Songs leads off with Fugazi's best-known song, the white-hot dub-punk anthem "Waiting Room," and keeps going with one feral rocker after another. Picciotto's "Margin Walker" articulates the specific rage of wanting to destroy the culture that excludes you, but the real knockout here is "Suggestion," an explosive attack on everyday sexism, sung by MacKaye from a woman's POV. Repeater is a development and refinement of the same basic approach, this time as a refutation of mass culture: "We owe you nothing/You are not what you own," MacKaye bellows on "Merchandise," and Picciotto's "Blueprint" finds him screaming "I'm not playing with you!" over and over. There's a bit of filler (two instrumentals and a remake of "Provisional" from 13 Songs), and more energy than craft at work, but you can't accuse them of being undercommitted.
With Steady Diet of Nothing, they slow down and dig in, making the music both tougher and more complicated. Lally's bass parts are three parts Joy Division to one part dub; you can hear the band's years of playing together turning into tricky, spacious instrumental patterns, as on "Stacks." MacKaye addresses the Gulf War in "Nice New Outfit" ("There's blood in your mouth, but not in mine"), and there are rumors of war elsewhere in the lyrics, but they're mostly the sort of raw impressionism that the late-Nineties emo generation subsequently picked up on.
Illness is everywhere on In on the Kill Taker, literally or metaphorically—it shows up all over the lyrics, and there are sick, nasty guitar noises starting or ending most of the songs, like the blistering feedback coda of "23 Beats Off." The band actually quiets down and builds tension a few times, but it's usually to give them somewhere to lunge from. Picciotto's words get weirder and are open to interpretation—"crush my calm, you Cassavetes"—but he declaims them like he's taking his revenge. There's also a fabulous Mac-Kaye punk-rock quickie, "Great Cop" (as in "You'd make a …").
Red Medicine continues along the same path into even denser, darker territory and suggests that Fugazi is feeding on lots of stuff that's very different from its own music. "Fell, Destroyed" even borrows a hook from Tenor Saw's dancehall reggae hit "Ring the Alarm," and "Version" is an ambitious, if not exactly successful, noise-dub experiment. The MacKaye knockout this time is "Bed for the Scraping," with its battle cry of "I don't want to be defeated" —in his mouth, it comes out as "idawannabeedafeeda."
The disjunction between the anthems and the arty moments of End Hits is schizzier still: MacKaye's "Five Corporations" savages music-biz hegemony with laconic precision, and Picciotto sings "Guilford Fall" like his head's exploding, but then there are pieces like the hushed bass gurgle "Pink Frosty" that are unrecognizable as the Fugazi of 10 years earlier. (That's a good thing, but the combination makes for difficult listening.) The recording is curious, too, switching between the audio equivalent of long shots and close-ups. A soundtrack to a documentary about Fugazi's first decade, Instrument includes oddities, instrumental doodles, and a half-dozen demos, mostly of End Hits songs. It's mostly ragged and unformed, but for confirmed Fugaziphiles, it's a solidly interesting peek into the band's creative process.
The four core members of Fugazi (plus live percussionist Jerry Busher, playing with the group for the first time on record) are clearly pulling in different directions on The Argument, and the result, miraculously, is their best album—somehow, they seem to have discovered that pleasure has radical possibilities too (backing vocals! cello! tunes, even!). Picciotto's "Full Disclosure" is as headlong a punk charge as they've ever made, but they've also figured out how to make their points by implication and understatement, musically as well as lyrically. The songs shift their textures restlessly as the band flexes its collaborative instincts, playing as if with a single pair of hands.
Fugazi has played only a handful of shows since the release of The Argument. They insist, however, that the band is not finished, and they've been releasing old shows as part of the Fugazi Live series; The September 4, 1993 set is particularly blistering.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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