Fugazi have never been quite as one-dimensional as their critics would have it. On their first full-length album, 1990’s Repeater, the D.C. quartet reinvented the sound of American hardcore. They wailed their emotionally charged political diatribes in between sturdy, lurching rhythms, Zeppelin-style changes in tempo and dynamics, and dissonant, distorted guitar textures. Even so, for noncultists, the group’s defiantly anticorporate preachiness often overshadowed the music; think Fugazi and you think ideology more than rocking out.
Red Medicine takes great pains to shatter these preconceptions, and the results are stunning. Fugazi have branched out musically and chilled out lyrically; they’ve added jazzy piano, dub-style bass and percussion, psychedelic guitar and even a snaky Middle Eastern-style melody to their palette. Instead of cramming angry diatribes down your throat, the group pulls back on several tunes, gently whispering its tales of the apocalypse through wavering sound effects. Fugazi even allow the music to speak for itself on a couple of instrumentals.
Fugazi have long been known for their earnest contempt for anything vaguely smacking of “mainstream” — guitarist Ian MacKaye was responsible for the legendary Minor Threat’s Überpious hardcore anthem “Straight Edge.” Now MacKaye’s finally discovered that humor can be a good antidote to the world’s woes, too. Behind the catchy surf guitars of “Target,” a song about corporate America’s co-opting of alternative, guitarist Guy Picciotto sings, “I realized that I hate the sound of guitars.” At times, the group camps it up: Check out the glammy delivery on the bitterly introspective “Forensic Scene,” the affected falsetto part in the moody “Fell, Destroyed” and the vocal nod to AC/DC’s Bon Scott on the hard-rocking “Latest Disgrace.”
For all its eclecticism, Red Medicine is rock solid, held together with seductive hooks, hummable melodies and an overarching continuity that takes the listener from the familiar Fugazi sound of “Do You Like Me” and the aptly titled “Back to Base” to the mesmerizing psychedelia and spare dub of “By You” and “Version.” This is an album for all fans of inventive guitar rock — whether Fugazi like it or not.