In 1979, the Clash advertised themselves as “the only band that matters”; in 1993, that claim belongs to Fugazi. In an age of corporate-sponsored “alternative” music, Fugazi are the real deal. Remaining staunchly independent, Fugazi manage to sell in the hundreds of thousands while maintaining their incendiary politics and a raw, difficult sound born out of the D.C. hardcore scene. Fugazi gained acclaim for aggressive midtempo antianthems, their sonic chaos reined in by a martial, reggae-inspired beat. Yet on Steady Diet of Nothing (1991), Fugazi expanded their musical range, layering the noise and adding a greater sense of dynamics, creating a sound even more tense and foreboding. In on the Kill Taker builds on this approach, demonstrating that as Fugazi grow more diverse, their music only becomes more powerful.
Kill Taker explores almost every aspect of Fugazi’s roots, serving as a virtual encyclopedia of punk-derived musical styles. The band digs deep into the sound of 70s British punks like the Ruts and U.K. Subs for pounding, brisk songs like “Facet Squared” and “Public Witness Program” but get more contemporary with the Sonic Youth-style fractured notes that open “Smallpox Champion.” “Cassavetes” incorporates Gang of Four’s dissonant harmonies and ’80s aggro funk, and the instrumental “Sweet and Low” even recalls the twisted but melodic Athens, Ga., sound of Pylon and early R.E.M. Most surprising is co-singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye’s return to the speedy hardcore sound of his former band Minor Threat on “Great Cop,” its relentless drive recalling the mosh pits of another era.
To inspire their lyrics, Fugazi have apparently been looking to the video store instead of The Nation. The protagonist who’s “paid to stand around” in “Public Witness Program” could come straight out of GoodFellas, and “Walken’s Syndrome” concerns a character based on Diane Keaton’s demented brother in Annie Hall, who wants to “steer into the headlights like the dead light of the last sun you’ll see.” On “Cassavetes,” Fugazi also add Hollywood, that “poor city of shame,” to their list of bankrupt American institutions. Over screaming guitar and an almost bluesy funk-bass vamp, co-singer-guitarist Guy Picciotto berates a “sad-eyed mogul” for not supporting adventurous filmmakers willing to “bust a genre,” like maverick director actor John Cassavetes. Despite this unexpected cinematic obsession, Fugazi still haven’t forgotten the polemics, attacking the ban on gays in the military in “23 Beats Off,” a raging tale of a gay soldier who “never thought he’d be an exclamation point/A demonstration of his disease/A punctuation mark/A household name with HIV.” And in spite of the claim that “irony is the refuge of the educated” on “Facet Squared,” there’s even a little humor mixed in with Fugazi’s protest, best exemplified on “Great Cop,” where MacKaye proffers the ultimate post-Rodney King insult: “You’d make a great cop.”
Kill Taker also surprises in its subtle passages, adding somber balladlike touches to songs like “Returning the Screw,” “Rend It” and “Last Chance for a Slow Dance.” But even the occasional calm can’t hide the rage underneath, brought forth in the more typical Fugazi ranting and angular rhythms of “Instrument.” MacKaye insists: “We need an instrument/To take a measurement/To find out if loss could weigh/We need to know value/We need to place value/In case it all comes true.” MacKaye shouldn’t be so worried — that “instrument” is right under his nose: Judging from the sound of In on the Kill Taker, there’s no greater agent of catharsis than Fugazi.