Fugazi: An introduction to the legendary D.C. post-hardcore band

Fugazi: An introduction to the legendary D.C. post-hardcore band

By Aaron Lohan

Aug 10, 2016 14:24

Welcome to “Where to Start”! In this series we’ll be guiding you through the back catalogue of established bands - both obscure and relatively well known - and covering their best, worst and most middling cuts. We’ll be dividing the bands’ output into five categories: Start Here, Follow Up, Try This, For Fans Only and Avoid. This month: Fugazi.

For many people, their introduction to D.C. legends, Fugazi, comes through the infectious opening bass and rhythmic groove of post-hardcore party jam, ‘Waiting Room’. But most never venture further, into their more challenging and thought-provoking material. Before we explain why you should be listening to Fugazi, a little background first.

Formed in Washington, D.C. in 1987, the band included former Minor Threat/Embrace frontman Ian MacKaye, former Rites of Spring/One Last Wish frontman Guy Picciotto, Rites of Spring drummer Brendan Canty, and bassist Joe Lally.

Taking experiences from their previous hardcore punk outings, the quartet sought to combine their DIY ethos and musical ambition, and focus it into punk-rooted innovation. That you’ll almost certainly know their name, even if you can’t name one of their albums, shows how successful this effort was. The band released six studio albums during a 15-year career, before going on hiatus in 2002.

So what made them tick? Darren Johns, the frontman of Plymouth roots-punks Crazy Arm, believes it was that combination of DIY ethos and musical passion, that “the idea of a truly independent 80s band, with politics similar to Crass, tethered to new post-punk rhythms that never failed to shake one’s booty, seemed too good to be true.”

For many punk and hardcore fans, it’s a revelation to find that you can still have a good time whilst listening to such socially and politically-charged music. And Fugazi’s unique approach to business was also inspiring, showing that they practiced what they preached. From playing cheap shows that cost $5 to saving costs by not producing merchandise, Fugazi’s dedication to innovation went well beyond their music.

“Everything about that band was spot on,” according to Darren Hunt, drummer for London punks, Trials of Early Man. “The quality of the musicianship, the way their sound has changed, and of course the whole attitude and ethos they maintained throughout.” Indeed, the attitude and ethos were the beating heart of it all, but as Hunt point out, that appetite for musical expansion was never-ending.

Punk and hardcore were the foundation, but Fugazi sprinkled that foundation with elements of reggae, dub, indie, and experimental rock. Many bands try to experiment with their sound, but few have emulated Fugazi’s success. Their imagination made them one of the most creative bands ever to emerge from the underground scene.

Start here: ‘The Argument’

Without question, ‘The Argument’ is Fugazi’s magnum opus and the recommended first exposure to the band. Their final release before an indefinite hiatus, ‘The Argument’ is a shining example of an act who bettered themselves with every release. It’s Fugazi showcasing their aptitude for re-defining punk/post hardcore, expanding on the ideas established on previous efforts, ‘End Hits’ and ‘Red Medicine’.

From the mesmerising hushed vocal tones and notes on ‘Life and Limb’ to the double percussive assault of ‘Ex Spectator’, there is innovative masterwork everywhere. Opener ‘Cashout’, for instance, draws the listener in with mid-tempo bass, drums, guitar and cello, continually building towards Ian Mackaye’s explosive cry against gentrification. ‘Epic Problem’, meanwhile, retains their early tenacious punk spirit in a juddering, stop-start fashion. A smorgasbord of art-punk and the perfect introduction to the band.

Follow-Up: ‘Repeater’

Even from their very early days, albums like ‘Repeater’ showed Fugazi as a different musical animal from the rest of the D.C. scene that birthed them. Touching upon socio-political themes, their 1990 debut was heralded by many as a landmark in punk and alternative rock.

For instance, the complex rhythms and guitar interplay on display in the likes of the title track and ‘Two Beats Off’ evokes an energetic rush. Heck, how can one resist Joe Lally’s dance-driven raw bass? Deliciously catchy stuff. Even on straight punk-esque numbers like ‘Greed’ and ‘Merchandise’, there is a weirdness creeping out. Pay attention to the impeccable quiet-to-loud dynamics found in closer ‘Shut the Door’. This near-improvised post hardcore jam wanders in deathly themed lyrics before exploding in a roar of noise catered by MacKaye, Picciotto, Lally and Canty. Generally speaking, ‘Repeater’ is one of the few albums which proved innovation and punk could go hand in hand.

Try This: ‘In on the Kill Taker’

Now, for the second follow-up you could go for one of a few choices. On one hand there’s the visceral yet skillful classic ’13 Songs’ compilation, whilst on the other, there’s the artfully underrated ‘Red Medicine’. It’s hard to go wrong. We, however, recommend you go in between for the Albini-produced 1993 LP ‘In on the Kill Taker’.

As their third studio album, it was the middling stage between their early raw rhythms and the diverse experimentation found in later material. Tracks found in the former style, including opener ‘Facet Squared’, are refined without sacrificing bite. As for Fugazi’s exploration into new sounds, there’s a well-executed collection once the shell is cracked open.

The noise rock cadence in ’23 Beats Off’ and the surf-meets-off-kilter-heavy riffs of ‘Smallpox Champion’ are evidence of this pearl- like quality. Other highlights include ‘Public Witness Program’ and the near-ghostly reverb led ‘Cassavetes’, which show off the ecstatic vocals of Guy Picciotto. Such presence in vox shakes you up in a fiery spine tingling glow. Further praise should be granted to producer Steve Albini himself; without his keen attention to capturing the band’s artistry and making the noise loud, we wouldn’t be recommending you this in the first place.

For Fans Only: ‘Steady Diet of Nothing’

This a record that may only grab the Fugazi super fans. In general, ‘Steady Diet of Nothing’ is often overlooked by critics, not because it’s a bad album, but it just feels like ‘Repeater’ 2.0. Songs like ‘Nice New Outfit’ and ‘Reclamation’ are held up in the traditional mould the band are know for, so there is a sense of “I’ve heard this before”.

However, such familiarity is still solidly delivered. For instance, opener ‘Exit Only’ lures you in with bold repetitive notes and a mid tempo pulse, the kind that huge fans of this act love. Another example is the track ‘Latin Roots’, whose dub-influenced rhythms recall Fugazi’s early work.

Yet this second LP does show signs of continual expansion in both sound and lyrical theme. An example of the former would be ‘Long Division”s interwoven melodies, which sees Fugazi evolve their pop sensibilities. Meanwhile, in terms of lyrical theme, ‘SDON’ is overtly more political, such as Picciotto’s dismay found in ‘Dear Justice Letter’ about the departure of a Supreme Court Liberal. This album is worth checking out, but if you are an average fan, it most likely won’t blow you away.

Avoid: ‘End Hits’

In our opinion, Fugazi never made a bad record in their career and all are worth your listening time. However, if there is one “dud” out of the lot, then it’s ‘End Hits’. Continuing the experimental trend from the previous album, ‘Red Medicine’, this fifth effort has some admirable, yet near incoherent ideas. In other words, one could describe it as Fugazi’s ‘Sandinista!’ – The Clash’s controversial 1980 triple-album – with less songs.

Songs like ‘Close Captioned’ and ‘Floating Boy’ adopt the use of synths to create an almost dub-influenced atmosphere. These are some interesting ideas, but Fugazi can’t quite seem to nail the landing with them. Furthermore, such tinkering makes you lose attention to what’s on display. Despite such complaints, there are highlights to devour, including the offbeat heaviness of ‘Break’ and the fun loosely felt ‘Five Corporations’. Overall though, ‘End Hits’ is just an odd pick ‘n’ mix bag to take in.

So there you have it – five records to introduce you to Fugazi, a band who succeeded in spite of (or perhaps due to) their disdain for the music industry and its mentality of “that’s just the way things are” and whose name has subsequently become a synonymous with a fierce spirit of independence. Quite simply one of the most important bands of all time.