Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now. This week: Fugazi’s Red Medicine.
Anniversary Records: Fugazi – Red Medicine
by Chad Jewett
Fugazi is a critically adored band without a critical consensus. The closest you might come to a collective academic opinion on the D.C. quartet is a narrative that favors the band’s first and last LPs – the wiry, jagged Repeater and the smoky art-punk of The Argument – as two definitive tent-poles, with the rest of the group’s output, four other full-lengths, ranging from “very good” to “excellent” (almost any song from Fugazi’s career was fair game for their amorphous setlists right up to their 2002 hiatus). It’s certainly a useful shorthand for tracing just how much the quartet – Guy Picciotto, Ian MacKaye, Brendan Canty, and Joe Lally – had grown from the scrappy post-hardcore of Three Songs and Margin Walker to the mood-heavy, near-psychedelic drama of The Argument. Only The Beatles and The Clash offer discographies so uncannily shaped like rolling snowballs accumulating layers. But Fugazi’s finest album, and their most expertly balanced blend of sharp-angled punk and modernist inventiveness, actually arrived right in the middle of that timeline, with 1995’s utterly essential Red Medicine.
After Repeater and its slightly less powerful follow up, 1991’s Steady Diet Of Nothing, the Dischord band began revising their strategies in earnest. First came 1993’s biting, fiery In On The Kill Taker, an album initially recorded with irascible super-producer Steve Albini. The band ended up re-cutting the LP at their usual studio (Inner Ear, Washington D.C.) with their usual producers and engineers (Don Zientara and Ted Niceley), but the raw-nerve attack that is Albini’s aesthetic nevertheless came to permanently shape the great Kill Taker, which remains Fugazi’s most aggressive, intense full-length. Even under the same familiar conditions and spaces, there was no doubting the especially feral spirit of In On The Kill Taker. When it came time to begin writing and recording that album’s follow-up, the band re-committed to the challenge of new contexts and arrangements, writing and demoing what would become Red Medicine in rural Connecticut (terrific footage of which can be found in Jem Cohen’s hypnotic Instrument documentary).
The results reflect the premium that Fugazi seemed to put on new space and ambiance. Where In On The Kill Taker, the product of Chicago and D.C., as well as a nerve-wracking touring schedule, is as gnarled, compact, and steam-heated – viscerally urban — as any Fugazi album would ever be, Red Medicine feels tangibly more open and spread-out, pastoral even, relishing the tones of rooms, quiet moments and the gaps between the band’s signature rubbery rhythm section and diamond-cut guitars. Take the echoes surrounding Brendan Canty’s drums on “Latest Disgrace”; the eerie Haunted Mansion piano and loose sounds that ebb into “Birthday Pony”; the billowing avant-noise of dub instrumental “Version” – featuring clarinet from Picciotto and a sense of spaciousness and flexibility (despite the song’s very real tension) that would have been unimaginable on the pressure-cooked Kill Taker. Along with that more measured, roomy approach is a willingness to let songs amble down diffuse paths and revel in unexpected layers. “Fell, Destroyed” begins gently, with the slightest scrap of guitar and Canty’s whispering cymbals before suddenly pivoting into a jangling Picciotto torch song. The song is almost pop, except that its chorus is accompanied most saliently by an atonal scritch of guitar noise; except that its main refrain is “Ring the alarm or you’re sold to dying” and its major key is always warping into spooky shapes. The song’s brand of murky, lush psych-punk would go on to define Fugazi’s next (and final) two LPs.
But surrounding the more cerebral, elliptical passages of Red Medicine are some of Fugazi’s most innovative and plainly thrilling punk workouts. In fact the album begins with two absolute masterpieces of bursting, sinewy post-hardcore: “Do You Like Me” and “Bed For The Scraping”. Wryly imagining the merger of military-industrial profiteers as a grade-school flirtation, Guy Picciotto’s album-opening “Do You Like Me” is at once sharply flexible and wholly bombastic, beginning with fifty seconds of pounding free-form noise before launching into a garage-punk sprint, just two chords played with toothy force beneath the Rites of Spring founder’s impressionistic lyrics: “Your eyes like crashing jets / Fixed in stained glass, but not religious.” Making expert use of their stereo guitar attack, the chorus becomes a call-and-response, Picciotto’s clean strum and “Do you like me?” refrain answered by a bending lick from MacKaye (“Do You Like Me?” remains a perennial highlight of the literally hundreds of performances for sale digitally in the Fugazi Live Series). The song is at once a marvel of simplicity and an incredibly complicated balancing act, built on the bright, translucent strums that characterize so many Fugazi songs, but always leaping at weird angles, making catching hooks out of unrelenting energy.
“Bed For The Scraping”, for its part, rides a whittled-down pairing of Lally and Canty, both doing career-best work in giving punk an actual groove, leaving open space for Ian MacKaye’s pugilist bark: “I don’t wanna be defeated, I don’t wanna be defeated!”. Where “Do You Like Me?” uses its guitars like endless layers of paint to be laid on extra-thick as accents to Picciotto’s boisterous vocal delivery, “Bed For The Scraping” deploys its riffs with laser-guided efficiency, following up the song’s bare-room verses with a dual guitar figure that cycles in wild atonality, jazz-like in its free-form melody and definitive as an example of post-hardcore’s crafted approach to lead guitar. Eventually the guitars decouple, one bending in groaning arcs as the other continues to whirl away – it’s a moment that’s wholly beautiful despite the quartet’s studied efforts to defy any and all of the conforming rules of scale and tone. There is an elegance to Fugazi, even at their most aesthetically difficult and willfully challenging, that is singular. At its best, the guitar work on Red Medicine is punk rock as incendiary splatter-painting.
As the album moves along, many of its finest moments come when the abstraction of “Version” and “By You” (a ballad/noise epic featuring a vocal from Joe Lally) meets the forward-motion and physicality of “Do You Like Me?”. “Birthday Pony” couples a characteristically sing-songy melody from MacKaye to a tricky lock-step verse groove that draws as much attention to where the notes aren’t, before moving into a bridge that pushes the band’s quiet/LOUD strategy to its farthest conclusion, swinging massively from lone whispers and sprigs of guitar to falling avalanches. Later, the closing trilogy of “Back To Base”, “Downed City”, and “Long Distance Runner” operates like a scaled model of the band’s journey from the thrashing electricity of In On The Kill Taker to the most thoughtful, carefully wrought moments of Red Medicine, beginning with harder-than-it-looks rhythmic hardcore of “Back To Base” to the final, nearly silent denouement of “Long Distance Runner”.
Above Joe Lally’s grinding-yet-hushed bass, one can barely hear MacKaye as he gently exhales the album’s closing lines: “And if I stop to catch my breath / I might catch a piece of death / I can’t keep your pace if I want to finish this race / My fight’s not with it, it’s with the gravity / Long distance runner”. For a band so defined by impact, it remains a bewitching thing to witness as Red Medicine closes with murmurs so gentle they sound as if they barely managed to press themselves onto the tape. The album remains Fugazi’s greatest achievement for moments like these – where the quartet found the real power of the sounds it could make, gleaning serious, compelling art from a whisper and a shout, all at once.