Celebrate the Catalog: Fugazi
For the entirety of their career, Washington, D.C.’s post-hardcore giants Fugazi have always seemed not just current, but musically advanced. With each album, the quartet of Ian MacKaye, Guy Picciotto, Joe Lally and Brendan Canty pushed punk rock into previously unexplored realms, incorporating dub, psychedelia, noise and various other stylistic influences into their raw, seething melodic attack. Yet the last set of music the band recorded has just turned ten years old. And until the band says otherwise, Fugazi, at least as far as we know it, is a thing of the past.
Though Fugazi sold hundreds of thousands of records, no small feat for a band that operated on a modest budget and largely sidestepped promotion, their reputation is almost as famous as their music. The band strictly adhered to a policy of shows with ticket prices under $10, and records that didn’t cost that much more, all of them released on MacKaye’s Dischord label. Much has been made of Ian MacKaye’s straight-edge lifestyle, though he hasn’t bothered anyone about that since he was in Minor Threat, as far as I can tell. However, politics did consume a large portion of the band’s lyrics, with topics that ranged from corporate development to sexism, things that most punk rock bands tend to be against, but juxtaposed against artful backdrops and cinematic references.
When you get right down to it, Fugazi were essentially four guys with punk rock backgrounds who sought to challenge the conventions of rock music while keeping it melodic and aggressive. Their catalog is not huge, their 14-year career yielding six studio albums and several EPs (some of which were compiled on early compilation 13 Songs), but they managed never to have released a bad album, an impressive enough accomplishment on its face. Examining this rich, albeit digestible catalog reveals the evolution of a band constantly driven, always seeking a new challenge, a more complex sound, and an evolving definition of punk rock. Here are the collected Fugazi albums ranked, rated, evaluated and put into context.
My brother once told me that he considered Fugazi’s “Waiting Room,” a song released at the tail end of the 1980s, the first great song of the 1990s. And he’s right. Looking back upon the arc of alternative rock, punk and indie throughout the decade, from Nirvana to Jawbox, Shudder to Think, Sunny Day Real Estate, Quicksand and The Afghan Whigs, there’s a line that traces back to the jittery funk and searingly melodic hardcore of Fugazi’s first two EPs, which comprise 13 Songs. A band born of the members of pioneering hardcore acts (Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, Embrace), Fugazi, for the first couple years anyhow, still behaved, in many ways, like a hardcore band. Aside from their notoriously strict codes of conduct and work ethic, Fugazi still borrowed liberally from the hardcore playbook despite running their own Hail Marys and statues of liberty. Gang vocals, socio-political lyrics, primal aggression – on paper, at least, Fugazi might have seemed fairly similar to any of the members’ former bands.
In practice, however, Fugazi laid down a much more complex and innovative take on punk that, while groundbreaking from the beginning, marked only destination in a long and sinuous journey across a broad sonic spectrum. While not a proper studio album, per se, 13 Songs kicked off a 12-year creative streak like few others in rock ‘n’ roll. It begins with the pulsing, machine-precise dynamics of “Waiting Room,” which has since become an alternative radio staple despite a complete absence of promotion, and continues to pile on what, to a more commercially minded band, would essentially be a non-stop sequence of “hits.” The band is conscientiously minded throughout, rallying against the objectification of women in “Suggestion,” while “Glue Man” sets the nightmare of drug addiction against an appropriately disorienting wall of guitars. And no matter how preachy they seem, in abstract, these songs are just way too fun for the stereotype of Fugazi as militant leftist joykills to hold any water. “Margin Walker” has likely soundtracked thousands of half-pipe sessions by now, while the chugging surge of “Burning Too” even matches “Waiting Room” in terms of shoutable hooks. Before they even released a proper debut, and before they started to lighten up a bit, Fugazi had already made a defining statement, or rather, the first of many in a career stamped with exclamation points.
Rating: 9.1 out of 10.
The great irony of Fugazi’s legacy is that for a band so staunch in their stance against commercial practices, they became a brand of their own. From the rallying cry of “You are not what you own!” in Repeater anthem “Merchandise,” the band sets the record straight about their position on cashing in. The Fugazi t-shirts that lined the pages of Sessions catalogs, including that very phrase on the back, were in fact bootlegs, lest anyone believe that the band’s practices were fungible. That said, the band built up an unbelievably huge following in just a few years, and following the success of Repeater, more than 150,000 fans pre-ordered its successor, Steady Diet of Nothing.
Now, despite how humorless or militant the band comes off at times on Repeater, you don’t sell that many records by strictly preaching, and whatever sloganeering the band tossed out on Repeater (and there’s a lot of sloganeering), they doled out the riffs and wiry post-hardcore rhythms in even greater quantities. Ian MacKaye responds to his rhetorical jab, “You say I need a job?“, with screeching blasts of noise and a counterintuitively catchy bark of a chorus. And for a song so seemingly cynical about commercialism, “Blueprint” sounds like a stadium anthem. It’s easy to typecast a band like Fugazi when they’re dispensing lines such as “It’s not what they’re selling/ it’s what you’re buying,” but even at their most preachy, the band wrecks the studio with the most progressively inventive batch of punk songs to emerge at the dawn of the ’90s.
Rating: 9.2 out of 10.
Steady Diet of Nothing
Fugazi never gave any indication of desiring to chase success by packing a record full of hit singles, and after releasing a pair of records composed of what, by Fugazi standards, were definitive hits, the band actually shied away from immediacy to a certain degree. Sophomore full-length Steady Diet of Nothing is not a “difficult” record, nor is it radically different from Repeater or the group’s first two EPs. But it’s different enough. Here, on the band’s first self-produced album, songs are given more space to breathe, and the more stifling hardcore intensity of before is dialed back in order to yield to sinewy grooves and noisy contrasts.
Nothing on Steady Diet of Nothing really approaches the urgency of “Waiting Room,” “Repeater” or “Burning Too,” but the band’s use of harmonization and more complex arrangements arrives at an album that stands up to repeated listens, and is probably even designed for them. The squall of guitar destruction against Joe Lally’s cool bass grooves marks an intriguing shift in approach, and the dark post-punk elegance of “Long Division” ranks among the band’s greatest tracks. There are a few forgettable moments as well, but what this album may have lacked in a more cohesive statement, it makes up for in bold, mostly rewarding risks.
Rating: 8.4 out of 10
In On the Kill Taker
A funny thing happened on the way to In On the Kill Taker. After releasing their first self-produced album, Steady Diet of Nothing, Fugazi headed to Chicago to record some sessions for their next album with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio. That combination sounds awesome enough in theory, but unfortunately the band wasn’t happy with the sessions and decided against using them for the album. And in the process they unintentionally created a legendary unreleased demo session, which has since circulated among fans. No matter how cool the idea of a Fugazi/Albini recording seems, however, the official In On the Kill Taker stands on its own as a strong album, if an underrated one in the band’s catalog.
Tighter, meatier and more fiery than its predecessor, In On the Kill Taker had a more nuanced maturity about it than the band’s early recordings, yet still maintained the punk rock ferocity that made them so exciting in the first place. Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye also start to move away from more over socio-political messages for lyrics that reference film in songs like “Cassevetes” and “Walken Syndrome” (named as such for Christopher Walken’s infamous scene in Annie Hall). But when they are confrontational, they seem to be having a little more fun with it; “You’d make a great cop” has never sounded so insulting as it does here. Most important of all the developments here, however, is that the band seems to grow more convinced that melody need not bludgeon to truly stun or captivate, and “Last Chance For a Slow Dance” puts that to practice in impressive fashion.
Rating: 8.7 out of 10
Neither earning the reputation as the consensus, canonical essential that Repeater did, nor lining up as many fan-favorite classic songs as the EPs collected on 13 Songs, Red Medicine nonetheless earned a wide share of accolades upon its release and in the 16 years since. But I’ll just go ahead and make my stance perfectly clear: It’s the band’s best album. Nowhere was the band more innovative and flexible in their studio techniques as they were here, incorporating strange bits of disembodied, static-laden segues at the beginning of “Birthday Pony” and “Do You Like Me,” as well as indulging into instrumental dub exercises on “Combination Lock” and “Version,” the latter of which is a trippier, vocal-free take on closing track “Long Distance Runner.” Adding to the looser, more experimental feel of the album is the band’s use of alternate tunings on tracks like the dense, psychedelic “By You.” This is probably the closest the band ever came to recording a Sonic Youth album, albeit with a much more streamlined approach and punk rock efficiency.
And yet, some of the most incredible moments on Red Medicine are those that sound like classic Fugazi, albeit refined and given a bit more space to maneuver. “Bed For the Scraping” lunges straight for the gut, a mighty wallop of a punk rock tune, with Ian MacKaye sounding ever so brutally manic, and sporting a guitar riff that’s as catchy as they’ve ever written. “Target” has a melodic, grooving cool, as well as an eye-brow raising “I’ve learned to hate the sound of guitars,” from Picciotto. Which, of course, couldn’t be true when they use them so expertly here; just listen to the slithering riff on “Long Distance Runner.” Post-hardcore doesn’t get more muscularly elegant than that.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Every artist needs a “bad” album, if for no other reason than to humanize talent that otherwise might seem beyond rational explanation, and End Hits is, to many, Fugazi’s. Here’s the problem with that: even as the least of the band’s six studio albums, it’s not actually a bad album. Certainly, the band’s studio “experimentations” resulted in an album with a more spacious atmosphere, and with a near absence of classic Fugazi rippers, save for “Caustic Acrostic.” And the fact that “Caustic Acrostic” is, actually, the album’s best song, doesn’t really help the band’s cause in pursuing less aggressive territory. But aside from a generally dampened sense of excitement, End Hits occupies an important role in the band’s discography, which makes more sense in hindsight. While no one would be blamed for thinking much of the second half of the album was just the band dicking around in the studio, End Hits provides a bridge between the more explosive, epic treatments of Red Medicine and the moodier, haunting The Argument.
End Hits, regrettably, is a bit top heavy. The first two songs, “Break” and “Place Position,” are cool, more subdued versions of the post-punk rhythms that had characterized their songs from the beginning. “Five Corporations” soars on a drum beat reminiscent of “Lust for Life,” and “Caustic Acrostic” is two minutes of the most satisfyingly searing post-hardcore they’ve written. In the album’s second half, however, the urgency seems to disappear in favor of more ambient dub punk that sometimes works (“Closed Captioned“) and sometimes grows tedious (“Floating Boy”). And though nothing ever really sounds embarrassing or grating, there’s a work-in-progress feel to some of the material that limits its appeal. It’s cool though, they were working up to something…
Rating: 7.3 out of 10
Chalk it up to spending more time with pop music obsessives than I had when I was a teenager, but when Fugazi released The Argument, there seemed to be more buzz around it, as if this was something special and different. And it was. The 2001 album, which, until the band decides to reconvene, was their last, is a fairly dramatic move away from the throat-grabbing post-hardcore that defined them in the ’90s. The Argument is an album of nuance and intrigue, and at times it’s most certainly loud, but it’s also the band’s prettiest album by a long shot. There’s minimal use of distortion on this album, fewer larynx-bleeding screams, and a greater attention paid to texture than to pure viscera.
Fugazi didn’t, by any means, transform into Low with The Argument, however. Though subdued when held against the band’s catalog as a whole, the ten songs on The Argument maintain an energy and momentum that only a band such as Fugazi could conjure. It’s just that they conjure it in very different ways. Only a “Full Disclosure” and “Epic Problem” explode like the old days, while “Cashout” makes a dramatic build from haunting, low-key verses strung with MacKaye’s soothing, yet vehemently anti-corporate statements such as “development wants what development gets” into a roaring climax of “Everybody wants/SOMEWHERE! SOMEWHERE!” The group goes hypnotically jangly on “Life and Limb,” stacks up a mesmerizing balance of tense guitar clang and rhythmic propulsion on “Ex-Spectator,” and achieved the pinnacle of their breathtaking sophistication of the band in the title track, the twinkling celesta bridge of which is perhaps the most beautiful stretch of music the band ever recorded. I would love nothing more than to hear another Fugazi record, but should this stand as their final statement, they ended their legacy on a plateau startlingly close to perfection.
Rating: 9.4 out of 10
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.