Fugazi was more original and important than any other traditional, obscure guitar rock band in the post-punk era. I mean that as a compliment. They pulled apart the traditional elements and dynamics of the genre while remaining familiar and normal enough to still be categorized as post-punk.
Consisting of Ian MacKaye, Guy Picciotto, Joe Lally and Brendan Canty, Fugazi’s modus operandi was cramming more intensity and incident into small corners of a song and giving the more obtuse, moody segments room to breathe. Texture, rhythm and pacing were just as important to them as energy and hooks. They pushed the limits of what guitar music could do in an era when it got increasingly shoddy and lazy. They were doing this before it got a name in the early 90s – Post-rock. (There was also another school of that genre, which I’ll cover later.)
Really, the most vital, distinctive songwriters of the 90s and 2000s were the ones who showed in clear, digestible ways that rock music was eating itself. Whether they were jovially displaying their influences and blending them into a post-modern rave or stubbornly shunning all typical tropes and making something obtuse and abstract, most notable efforts were conversations with the past instead of truly uncharted expeditions.
In this environment, Fugazi tended toward the latter, but proved far more inviting and sensible than the many bands they influenced. They were uncompromising in many ways, succeeding modestly without bowing to the traditional capitalist norms of the music industry. They were famous for taking huge pay and royalty cuts to make their concerts and records easily affordable to the public. In a sense, they paved the way for the next two decades’ raw, DIY indie rock.
Their trademark is filtering nihilistic noise and informed anger through philosophical refinement and pseudo-operatic song structures. These enigmatic screeds are extremely kinetic and tactile, with morose and twisty riffs, abrasive stabs of rhythm guitar, impassioned vocal attacks and funky anchoring polyrhythms. The band also frequently massages the tempo and volume of their songs to achieve exciting and unexpected climaxes.
Fugazi was brilliant at always being two beats off of your average hard rock template, subverting expectations but always with a goal in mind and a conclusion to reach. They always seemed like they had a plan. Some of their songs lurch to a lumpy start and then end in intertwining explosions. You just had to trust that every choice would make sense at some point, and it almost always did. The band slowly evolved, from literate punks in the late 80s to more leisurely post-rock scholars in the later 90s. By their 2001 swan song and masterpiece The Argument, they had said everything they needed to say and promptly disbanded, leaving a virtually untarnished legacy.
Red Medicine is a perfect transition between their different phases, and serves as a representative starting point. It’s very consistent, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Bed For the Scraping”, which is one of the 90s’ best and catchiest songs. As I said earlier, it may seem a bit meandering and diffuse at first, but eventually it coalesces into a bunch of brainy, postmodern hard rock songs.
Key track: “Latest Disgrace”
See also: In On the Kill Taker – Fugazi (1993), End Hits – Fugazi (1998), The Argument – Fugazi (2001)