Fugazi: Steady diet of greatness

13 Songs (1990) – 5 stars

Repeater +3 Songs (1990) – 4 stars

Steady Diet of Nothing (1991) – 4 stars

In on the Kill Taker (1993) – 5 stars

Red Medicine (1995) – 5 stars

End Hits (1998) – 3.5 stars

The Argument (2001) – 4 stars


A “staggeringly powerful combination,” as Rolling Stone has called them, a supergroup to some, the culmination of increasingly impressive work done by two lead singers earlier in their careers, the immensely influential Fugazi always did things their way.  They rocked harder than most, thought more deeply than most, veered in unpredictable directions whenever the hell they felt like it, and in the process created some of the most visceral, thrilling, intelligent, and demanding rock music in existence.  Headed by the incomparable duo of Ian Mackaye (best known up to that point for Minor Threat, the prime example of hardcore punk) and Guy Picciotto (leader of the incredible Rites of Spring), they balanced rock with brains more cogently than just about anyone and should thus be required listening for all fans of modern rock music.  

A compilation of two early EPs (which has sadly provided a moderate level of obscurity to help keep it out of public consumption), 13 Songs remains one of music’s most thrilling debuts.  Coherent but not overly similar, dueling lead guitars pushing and pulling for your attention, it takes your emotions to the extreme—the faint of heart need not apply.  Fan favorite “Waiting Room” delivers a pulse-pounding bass line and exceptional use of dynamics and build-up—and that’s all in the first 21 seconds before that unforgettable drop into silence. (I’m serious—you’ll remember the first time you got to that part.) Few songs accelerate more smoothly, few hiss more bitterly, few make you want to get up off your feet any more persuasively.  Though not quite their best song, it’s a mind-blowing start.

On tracks like that one, “Bulldog Front,” and “Promises,” the band announces how little time it has for self-deception, for facades, for laziness, for bullshit.  Guy and Ian each take lead vocals on several songs, providing lyrics right at home to anyone feeling pulled in several directions at once.  On the spectacular “Give Me the Cure,” Guy wonders, “I never walked the side of dying before / And now I feel like I’m…” as the song patiently builds to a climax that’s danceable and disturbing all at once.

A hard debut to top, but on Repeater, Fugazi proves how much they don’t give a shit what anyone expects from them.  It’s remarkable how much this album sounds similar to 13 Songs—avoiding the you-must-branch-out-for-your-second-album cliché—and yet never feels like contentedly milking of a formula.  The songwriting has slipped just a touch, but that’s it; opener “Turnover” succeeds in more ambitious and shifty ways than anything before, and Guy’s “I’m not playing with you!” screams on “Blueprint” feel like they could shake the Earth from its core.  Tracks like that one and “Merchandise” find Fugazi beginning their trend of criticizing corporate society for anything and everything; with Repeater, they moved less personal and more political.  (Note: the album has subsequently been re-issued with 3 additional tracks; a bonus, since “Song #1” is one of its best.)

Steady Diet of Nothing is anything but, though it’s Fugazi with the first of their many twists.  Here they slow down the tempos, moderate the altitudinal changes, and add noticeable dub influences.  They make it work on tracks like “Reclamation” and “Nice New Outfit” with guitars a little less teeth-grinding and bass lines that often create their own melody.  The only problem is the diminished intensity; it’s hard to say whether that’s inherent in the changes or simply because they didn’t write the same top-notch batch of songs as before.  Still, it’s a compelling listen all the way through, a real grower that sounds better the more attention you give it. 

Released back-to-back, Fugazi firing on all cylinders in their mid-career peak, In on the Kill Taker and Red Medicine stake out their boldest claim to being 90s rock saviors.  Wildly different but both recognizably Fugazi, they find the band embracing the extreme, even more so than on 13 SongsKill Taker makes ear candy out of harsh, grating, shaving-with-sandpaper guitar noises, like on the ending of “Walken’s Syndrome” and beginning of “Facet Squared.”  It’s probably their most stripped-down album, leaving room for nothing but their hardest, enhanced-punk melodies, Guy and Ian’s fiercest yowls, and breathless songs like “Facet,” “Great Cop,” and “Public Witness Program.” 

On ace track “Rend It,” Guy wants to feel raw pain—“I don’t care what you use / Just don’t ask me to choose”—and the seemingly sadistic tendencies serve as a metaphor for emotional nakedness and vulnerability.  “A light comes into my room,” he sings on the verses, with little instrumentation to save him, “Some shade of bruise-colored blue.”  Then Ian comes in during the chorus and the band explodes; over the ferocious ending of “My…love…song…went…wrong!” each pound of the drums sounds like it’s scraping another piece of skin off your face. 

Stopping then wouldn’t have damaged Fugazi’s Rock Pantheon credentials; instead, Red Medicine is even better.  Far removed from Kill Taker, Fugazi experimented in all kinds of directions—piano, clarinets, spontaneous bursts of laughter, no guitars on “Version”—bringing a dazzling array of color and depth that underscores their strongest batch of songs.  They lead off with three of their top five all-time songs, step back for a groovy midsection, and then, starting with the excellent “Target,” bring things back to old-school Fugazi.

Few albums hold together so coherently while still containing an almost embarrassing number of individual pleasures.  “Downed City” contains no wasted energy whatsoever, a punk song angrier and more resonant than any punk song ever written.  “Do You Like Me” opens with thick industrial noise, suddenly revealing all slashing, hurtling guitar lines that almost overpower Guy’s “I’ve got a question…” supplication.  “Latest Disgrace” channels the theme of “Rend It” over a slow burn, Joe Lally’s dominant, catchy bass line paving the way for the thunderous climax to which most other songs’ climaxes merely aspire.  

At this point, they’d figured everything out, taking advantage of both sides of every equation.  That’s true musically (“Bed for the Scraping” combines Lally’s thick bass line with Ian’s high-pitched yowls, producing a rallying cry even more persuasive than “Waiting Room”), lyrically (finding room to attack the modern music biz on “Target” and providing more get-off-your-ass cries as they did on 13 Songs), and vocally (Guy sounds ready to break apart when he screams, “downed CITY!” and the quieter moments are nearly as affecting).

Like a pitching change in the middle of a baseball rally, End Hits inevitably stops the roller coaster for just a moment, although the excitement still festers below the surface.  This is their what-the-fuck album and the one with the least cohesive theme.  On curious near-failures like “No Surprise” and  “Floating Boy,” Fugazi bring back those non rock-like bass lines from Steady Diet of Nothing, but they pair them with overly sparse and texture-like guitar and melodies that veer in all kinds of directions, few of them memorable or necessary.  And I have no idea what “Pink Frosty” was supposed to do for anyone.

Nonetheless, there’s about 2/3 of a great album here, namely in the back-to-back duo of “Five Corporations” and “Caustic Acrostic,” which would have fit well on Repeater.  Picking up where “Target” left off, lyrically, the former is one endless mind-fuck (in a good way), blending its verses and choruses together with jarring tempo changes, eccentric and entertaining instrumentation, anguished screams, piercing guitar—the Fugazi that we know and love.  “Acrostic” and “Place Position” prove just how impossible it is to listen to this band without wanting to move, to dance, to hit something, to fire back in some way.  Those parts of the album are like a golfer finding his swing after hitting a few bad shots on the range.

By the time of 2001’s The Argument, the band had nothing left to prove to anyone, and in some ways, it shows.  Here, they present perhaps their most diverse record from start to finish—in the songs that alternate between uncompromisingly harsh verses and lovely choruses (“Full Disclosure”), in the closed-fist punch of some (“Epic Problem”) and the brightness and openness of others (“Oh”), in the additional instruments ranging from a cello to a second drummer (on the phenomenal “Ex-Spectator”).  “Disclosure” updates “Margin Walker,” musically and lyrically, for the 21st century; and when they grind everything to a halt, (“Life and Limb,” “Strangelight,” “The Argument”), they rejoin the party with some of their strongest melodies and sense of cohesion.  The critics who called The Argument the band’s best work went a little overboard, but this is a fascinating listen from a band at this point of their career.

All told, in the 87 songs contained on these 7 albums, Fugazi hit an astonishing success rate both in their exceptional peaks and avoidance of filler.  During its career, the band became a polarizing entity—for the perception that it was overly self-righteous, for charging $5 for concerts and kicking out patrons who were obnoxious, for maintaining its own record label and reminding everyone of their disdain for the corporate music business.  Despite their insistence on remaining untouched by “the man” and focusing on nothing but the tunes, these non-musical feelings that some felt threatened to overshadow the material they actually wrote. 

But you can hear their influence everywhere, from Jawbox to The Dismemberment Plan, from Cursive to other neo-emo bands.  Go back and find videos of them playing “Waiting Room” to a dingy club of feverish 20something devotees singing along to every word.  Note the impossibility of a song as ferocious as “Smallpox Champion” being only the fifth best on its album.  Listen to Red Medicine and wonder all the way through if there’s ever going to be a song that rates below excellent.  They’ll never be a household name to the general public, but whatever; Fugazi, I’ve found the cure, and it’s you.

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3 thoughts on “Fugazi: Steady diet of greatness

  1. I picked up Red Medicine years ago because Fugazi was a DC band with a heck of a reputation. After reading this, I’m thinking I should go back and grab 13 Songs or Repeater.

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