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It was somewhere on a mix tape—somewhere between the Last Poets and Wilco—that I realized Fugazi was still my favorite band. Not just because I play the grooves off its records every time a new one comes out (I’ll be needing a fresh copy of Red Medicine, natch), but because when Fugazi’s turn on the tape came around, I couldn’t recall hearing anything that cracked the exposed-nerve whip with such potency and still pricked the ear with the sensation that it could only have come from one source.
“Hardly recognize simple things anymore,” singer/guitarist Ian MacKaye roars at one point. And while Red Medicine does indeed find the band on some of its farthest-out turf ever, it’s the blend of the band’s well-developed repository of vigorous sounds and give-it-a-try experimentation that makes the disc soar.
Many fans have wondered if another Fugazi album was ever going to appear. Rumors since In on the Kill Taker had the band on varying degrees of hiatus—ranging from a short respite to a total indefinite work stoppage—depending on who you asked. The modest biographical insert accompanying promo copies of Red, however, says the period was “spent at home for the most part working on a new record and taking a break from touring,” and comfortably concludes that Fugazi is “still Brendan Canty, Joe Lally, Ian MacKaye, and Guy Picciotto.” The quartet has apparently decided not to turn into a punk Steely Dan, either—Fugazi is currently on a three-month European tour and may cover the U.S. again in the fall.
Wildly successful by almost any indie-rock standard, the band has strived since its inception to keep every facet of its career direct and contentious. This approach, denounced as holier-than-thou by some, is often wrongly considered before the band’s music. Suffice it to say that Fugazi makes waves wherever it goes. While seven years of steadily increasing notoriety hasn’t softened the members’ stares, the music has become the barometer of how “success” has affected them. On Red Medicine, the band achieves breathtaking results with music that is directed inward to a greater extent than before, balancing the oblique and the personal in a manner that folks who saw them playing at d.c. space would never have thought possible.
Red Medicine is the band’s fourth long-player, and it furthers a stylistic maturation that resembles early tunes in only the most basic way. (We aren’t likely to hear comparisons to early reggae/funk synthesizers the Ruts this time around.) While 1993’s In on the Kill Taker was a wild tumbleweed of howling noise, Medicine is characterized by tight ‘n’ snaky instrumental work—at one point even sounding like notorious feedback-mongers Dead C. The best parts of the new record (which is most of it) blend these two themes, drawing them toward mutual agreement and away from the band’s reggae/punk foundation.
Although the band’s determination isn’t flagging, MacKaye’s vocal turns suggest more than once that wear and tear isn’t as easy to shake off as it once was. Lines like “If I stop to catch my breath/I might catch a piece of death” and “My fight’s not with you/It’s with gravity” both come from “Long Distance Runner,” a sort of keeping-the-faith album closer.
A buried, boom-box-quality sludge-out opens the proceedings (the band goes so far as to label the LP’s unnamed interludes “incidental music”), but soon drops headlong into “Do You Like Me.” Picciotto adds local color while the music rattles like an out-of-control Air Miami: “While in Bethesda/An office flaming/Youth group singing/Fireman calling in/Lockheed Lockheed Martin Marietta…Do you like me? I guess….” The band poses the question but doesn’t care (or wait around) for the answer. “Forensic Scene” is driven by disgust at the circuslike O.J. Simpson trial, its singsong, nearly Lennonesque vocal fraught with hold-release momentum.
Medicine also achieves the noise-groove synthesis at lower volumes. For the first time, the band makes almost no use of MacKaye and Picciotto’s once-trademark tandem vocals: Two songs completely befuddle vocally on first listen. I still don’t know who’s behind the mike on “By You,” but the singer’s throaty cadence has an almost Southern twang; combined with a midtempo churn and pealing feedback, the track is not quite like anything else the band has done. The LP’s most effective song winds that approach even tighter. Picciotto’s loose-slung talk/rap on “Fell, Destroyed” drives the verses, which are built on impressionistic lyrics: “Now it’s time to fake resignment/Room assignment/Next door to the generator/What the fuck it is/Whatever/Powers lights to burn all night/Your teeth to grind/Grind so fine.” As they do throughout the album, drummer Canty and bassist Lally change gears in an eye blink—this recording contains some of the greatest bass/drum interlock anywhere—while scratchy, bob-weave guitar propels the double-tracked voice, imploring here “Ring the alarm or you’re sold to dying” and there “Yes I have a sense of humor/Don’t you sense my sense of humor?” Yeah, but the whole thing is so marvelously taut it’s not even funny.
Not all the disc’s tracks can sustain this level of intensity. Only nice guitar trade-offs save “Latest Disgrace” from being filler, and “Target,” the disc’s most accessible track, soon wears thin, its lyrical content too heavy-handed to reward repeated listenings. Both instrumental tracks work (one features a synthesizer!), and “Bed for the Scraping” and “Downed City” are as vehement as anything the band has done.
Red Medicine continues Fugazi’s acceleration around creative and personal curves. The discoveries the band makes as the miles tick off have been captured in both raw and polished form, and achieved with an amateur’s joyful abandon. This is no empty achievement for an outfit that has been around as long as any in Dischord history, where careers are notable for their crash-and-burn brilliance. With Red Medicine, Fugazi continues to create the most rewarding recordings in the indie rock—or any other—pantheon.