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Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Fugazi

Originally posted: Tuesday, January 9th, 2007

For a lot of people, Fugazi’s essential stuff consists of 13 Songs and Repeater. I’m not going to argue with that assessment, but I will argue with the idea that the rest of their catalog is a weird, frustrating puzzle.

Originally formed as a trio in 1986 with Ian MacKaye on vocals and guitar, Joe Lally on bass and Colin Sears on drums, Fugazi was hotly anticipated before they ever played a show. Sears was from the lauded Dag Nasty and MacKaye was already a legend not just in Washington D.C., but the whole country.

MacKaye helped form and run Dischord Records, the label that put D.C. on the map in the hardcore scene. Putting out releases by Minor Threat, Scream and the Faith, Dischord was a way to document a local music scene. With no interest in devaluing music for the sake of consumerism, Dischord has remained one of the most iconic independent labels in the world. For some, it’s the label. But how did it go from a hardcore punk imprint to what it is now? Though plenty of other bands on the label deserve credit, Fugazi was a big part of the broadening Dischord’s appeal beyond the hardcore world.

Taking its name from a slang word for “fucked up situation,” Fugazi had an approach nobody could have ever predicted. Instead of the fast and furious ways of Minor Threat or the wiry, moodier material of Embrace, MacKaye wrote songs that had a quasi funk and reggae feel and a nod to Seventies hard rock to boot. Definitely not resting on laurels, Fugazi was incredibly advanced even at the beginning.

Before their first show in September '87, Sears left the band to rejoin Dag Nasty. Replacing him was former Rites of Spring drummer Brendan Canty, whose approach to the groove was essential in creating the loose-but-driving mood that Fugazi would forever be known for. Adding Canty’s former Rites of Spring bandmate Guy Picciotto to the fold on lead and backing vocals, the band was definitely a D.C. supergroup. However, MacKaye made sure that flyers for their shows did not advertise their ex-member ties. Instead, they wanted to start from scratch. It would prove to be a very smart move — the material found on the band’s first two EPs formed the measuring stick for all things considered post-hardcore in years to come.

13 Songs (1989)

Joining the seven songs found on the Fugazi EP and the six songs on the Margin Walker EP, 13 Songs is a pretty intense introduction. It kicks off with the arguably best-known Fugazi song — and “Waiting Room” is a stellar debut track. But it’s the two following songs that give a better glimpse as far as what Fugazi was at the time — and what it would become. The Picciotto-sung “Bulldog Front” offers a restrained verse only to be knocked aside by a jamming chorus. The MacKaye-led “Bad Mouth” features a double-time guitar line over a cut-time drum pattern. The song’s arrangement teases with a build-up towards a grand chorus, something the band would use to great effect in its live show.

Already, you can hear the differences between Picciotto and MacKaye’s voices. Picciotto’s strained tenor and MacKaye’s shouted barks sound nothing alike, but they complement each other in their own beautifully disjointed ways. This would definitely make for a key ingredient in making their first proper album a treasure.

Repeater (1990)

Yes, this record is a post-hardcore masterpiece. I think it’s the best Fugazi record in terms of flow and mood, but it isn’t the only great record they made. I don’t mean to take Repeater’s thunder away; it’s hard to find a bad moment on the album. I just feel that people who begin and end with here are missing out on some crucial stuff post-Repeater. For now, let’s look at why Repeater is probably the record to start with.

With Picciotto now playing guitar, the interplay between he and MacKaye would bulk up their already ferocious guitar attack. Lally and Canty perfectly lock in underneath, as evidenced in tracks like “Sieve-Fisted Find,” “Merchandise,” “Brendan #1″ and the title track. Yet it’s the slower material that shows how much the band had grown.

“Blueprint” and “Shut the Door” take the pace down, but don’t kill the vibe. Appearing in the middle and at the end, these songs elevate the band out of the “Stooges meets reggae” approach perfected on 13 Songs.

Fugazi was already a powerhouse touring machine by now. Their concerts were events more than mere shows. The abrupt starts and stops and quiet-loud dynamics were even more pronounced live. Though the band would be taunted by requests for Minor Threat songs during their first few years together, people were really clicking into what Fugazi had to offer by Repeater. The band never used a setlist, so you never knew which songs you’d hear. More often than not, you came away seeing probably one of the best shows of your life.

With the mainstream interest in anything considered alternative growing as 1991 loomed, plenty of bands, including Fugazi, would eventually benefit from increased exposure. However, Fugazi weren’t about to bow down to major label machinations in order to sell a few more albums. This was especially evident on Repeater’s follow-up.

Steady Diet of Nothing (1991)

While Steady Diet of Nothing is not a letdown per se, it does leave a lot to be desired after Repeater. A number of riffs sound like they were cribbed from a Seventies guitar tablature book, and overall the record feels a little plodding. There’s nothing like “Radar Love” or “Stranglehold” here, but compared to what Fugazi had already done, the riffs feel a little stilted and too straightforward.

That said, Steady Diet of Nothing features some key tracks in the band’s canon. “Reclamation,” with its overdriven guitars and cut-time drumbeats, would be a live staple from here on out. Closer “KYEO” would also be a live favorite, but there was plenty of better stuff coming as soon as the next album.

Despite Steady Diet of Nothing’s flaws, I should point out how magnetic this band was at the time: They called out crowdsurfers by stopping their shows, played only all-ages concerts, didn’t sell T-shirts, didn’t make videos, and their CDs (along with all other Dischord CDs) cost only $8. At a time when major labels were lurching on the underground to make it their new bread and butter, Fugazi stuck to their ideals and never let go. Though their albums would never have that major-label polished gloss that smoothes all the rough edges away, Fugazi wasn’t hindered. On the contrary, they thrived.

In On the Kill Taker (1993)

Definitely a great rebound record, In On the Kill Taker was actually recorded twice. Their first attempt was with famed engineer Steve Albini. While those sessions would be great experience, everyone involved with the project (including Albini) was unsatisfied with the results, so the band did it again, this time with Ted Niceley at Inner Ear Studios (where almost every Dischord act had already recorded). The second time was the charm, delivering probably one of band’s most ferocious records.

In On the Kill Taker feels like a bunch of people banging on your doors and knocking your windows out. MacKaye and Picciotto are even more relentless in their vocal delivery. For those still pining for something in the vein of Minor Threat, “Great Cop” is probably the closest that Fugazi ever got. Coupled with other fist-pumpers like “Facet Squared” and “Smallpox Champion,” the record is pretty stellar in the rockin’ and ravin’ department.

The brash intensity doesn’t really let up until the final tracks. “Instrument” is slower, but rather melodic (Fugazi-wise), while “Last Chance for a Slow Dance” closes out the album with a gentle, art-damaged piece.

In On the Kill Taker’s followup would not arrive for two years; in the meantime, the band’s sound would be undertaking some sonic adventures — much to some people’s chagrin — but this kept them from treading water.

Red Medicine (1995)

On the whole, Red Medicine sounds like the band using the studio itself as an instrument. Jams and ideas are included in glimpses and in full songs (see “Combination Lock” and “Version”). While they are a tad distracting, the songs themselves are not.

Red Medicine is tamer compared to In On the Kill Taker, yet this isn’t a cop-out. “Do You Like Me” thrusts around with a boogie-like groove. “Bed for the Scraping” and “Downed City” are in the vein of In On the Kill Taker’s rave-ups complete with siren-like guitar squeals. “Forensic Scene” has an open, cut-up guitar riff that leads to a tangled chorus. “Target” is a grooving song that arrives near “Smallpox Champion” by way of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Lally makes his lead vocal debut on “By You,” delivering a low-key approach over a tripped-out, noisy affair. Final track “Long Distance Runner” sounds like it was a quiet ballad in its early stages only to be amplified by the full studio treatment.

The changes in the band’s sound would turn off people steeped in the ways of 13 Songs and Repeater. With the Alternative Nation moving into scattered packs, Fugazi would continue to challenge themselves whether they gained or lost fans along the way. Red Medicine was not a polarizing record per se, but it definitely drew some lines in the sand.

End Hits (1997)

In response to rumors that the band was breaking up, Fugazi humorously titled its fifth proper album End Hits. Far from it — though the band’s last few records hadn’t sold as much its first few releases, End Hits and its follow-up show that the group wasn’t running out of fuel. However, End Hits does suffer from being a little too disjointed.

After a moody start, the peppy “Five Corporations” and “Caustic Acrostic” make for a proper kick in the pants. Both are head-boppers, especially “Caustic Acrostic.” A nice open guitar lead is punched forward by Canty’s fluid-but-twisted drumbeat. “Closed Captioned” really switches gears to amazing effect. Augmented by a drum machine, the song’s dripping guitar lines give the song a dreary, eerie feel. “Arpeggiator” is another highlight because of its main guitar riff. Taking the often-used technique for tuning a guitar and turning it into a riff is pretty darn cool if you ask me.

Overall, End Hits is similar in tone to Steady Diet of Nothing, but it doesn’t feel stifled like Steady Diet. As a matter of fact, the band sounds very loose and relaxed (check out “Floating Boy” for proof). All kidding with the title aside, it’s good that Fugazi didn’t end here.

The Argument (2001)

Between End Hits and The Argument, Instrument, a Fugazi documentary was released. A fascinating collage of the band over the years, Instrument is essential viewing. Showing the band from various sides (calling out crowd roughhousers, showing tension while making Red Medicine, goofing around at a gas station, discussing certain myths about the band), director Jem Cohen offers a portrait of the band that you can’t get from its records.

Fugazi supplied the Instrument soundtrack with demos of songs both released and unreleased. Many of the tracks are instrumental and aren’t really that engaging on their own out of context, which is why it’s not getting a spotlight here.

Now, The Argument. End Hits flies a little off the handle into esoteric avant-garde, but The Argument reels things back in a good way. Following an untitled instrumental, “Cashout” gets a funky groove going. “Full Disclosure” and “Epic Problem” crank the energy up tenfold. “Full Disclosure” features a wailing Picciotto vocal over a sliding guitar line that’s met by a melodic, falsetto-spiced chorus.

“Epic Problem” drives a charging beat and guitar line to great effect, especially in the bridge. The song also features a second drummer, named Jerry Busher. Busher was a part of the band’s road crew and had been adding auxiliary drumparts live for awhile. A number of tracks on The Argument feature Busher, and make crafty use of two drummers without tying up the sound in knots. Check out “Ex-Spectator” for more proof.

The Argument works so well because it feels like a more song-oriented album rather than a jazzy, off-the-cuff record. I don’t want to slag the band for its sonic experiments on Red Medicine and End Hits, but The Argument feels stronger because of its focus.

Since completing a touring cycle in 2002, Fugazi has listed itself as “on hiatus.” Though the band refuses to say it’s finished, this hiatus is not about to end anytime soon. MacKaye has cut two records with the Evens, Lally released a solo album earlier this year, Picciotto recently produced the newest Blood Brothers record and Canty has drummed for Bob Mould and has been a part of the Burn to Shine DVD series.

A few years ago, the Fugazi Live Series an official online store featuring a number of Fugazi’s live shows, debuted. Currently, thirty complete shows are available for purchase (including the band’s first show in '87) individually or in sets.

Not much unreleased material has surfaced, except for two tracks found on the 20 Years of Dischord box set. Along with a live version of “Burning,” “The Word” was a Margin Walker outtake. This recording was the last time the band ever played the song.

In closing, Fugazi was one of the most defiant bands not just in the Alternative Nation or the world of punk rock, but the world, period. In fifteen years, they toured every state in the US and played all over the planet many times. They never made commercial concessions for the sake of gaining new fans. They always wanted to make seeing them play and hearing their music accommodating within reason. Combined sales of their catalog are well beyond the 2 million mark now. However, considering Fugazi’s longtime creed, that’s really just an afterthought.

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