Fugazi Part Three: Red Medicine and End Hits

Red Medicine

"Red Medicine" was the first Fugazi album I ever bought when it was released.  Up until this point, I'd been playing catch up.

There's a decent argument to be made that this is their best album.  It's certainly the first salvo of the band taking their songwriting to the next level.

Right from the start, something is different.  There's the energy we're used to.  It opens with some crazy noise, but that's not too surprising.  But are those...clean guitars?  And it's an up tempo song?  And is that a guitar solo (loosely defined, sure)?

And it's like Fugazi knows this might seem strange to you and they challenge you right in the song.  "I've got a question/how/do you like me?"

We are Fugazi and we've taken it to the next level!

"Bed for the Scraping" is classic Fugazi with new Fugazi twist.  Groovestastic bass/drums, Ian McKaye grunting, but the guitar work is sharper and more layered than what we've seen before.  This is a new kind of punk rock anthem, but still has all the old school energy.

"Latest Disgrace" says "remember those weird noises at the beginning of this album?  That was just a taste."  The first half of the song is bizarre, as if the guitars have been tuned differently, and everything besides Guy's voice is muted, particularly the barely there drums by Canty.  Oh, and Guy goes falsetto at one point.  But then it all collapses into the kind of straight forward rocking we expect of Fugazi, it just has more power now, because it's got new context.

"Birthday Pony" seems like it should sound like an old Fugazi song, but the production has changed it.  The palm muting, the big chorus -- this should be "13 Songs" era Fugazi.  But the big chorus isn't just big this time around, it's full.  There's a texture there that we haven't seen before.  And you're beginning to realize that Ian and Guy are pushing each other when it comes to vocals.  They're going into uncharted territory.

"Forensic Scene" is an instant classic.

And then we hit the weird stuff.

"Combination Lock" is probably the most "jam" feeling instrumental Fugazi has ever released.  It feels like a song they're just jamming on one day.  "Fell, Destroyed" could be a June of '44 song.  "By You" is a crazy wall of sound with these mellow vocals by Joe Lally.  "Version" is yet another instrumental, but this one features a clarinet...oh, and the bass line from another song on the album (which we haven't gotten to yet).  It's almost like an undecipherable remix of a song that comes later on the record.

We return to more straight forward, yet no less creative, Fugazi rock with "Target."  Yet again, though, there are guitars that are strikingly not distorted, and yet the urgency of the music hasn't lessened at all.  There's even the classic Fugazi palm mute a part by itself, then play it full blown with the rest of the band, yet it all feels much bigger.  Just listen to the guitars on "Back to Base."  We've never heard anything like that on a Fugazi record.  It's epic.  And "Downed City" is much the same, just more frenetic.  It's wonderful.

I love "Long Distance Runner."  In a lot of ways, it epitomizes "new" Fugazi.  We've got this full, kind of notey, two guitar bit, then some bass/drums action (with appropriate level of guitar noise), and a spectacular level of loud quiet loud.  It's also works as the perfect metaphor for the band: they are long distance runners.  They are constantly moving forward.  They have yet to get stuck because they can't stop.  "And if I stop to catch my breath/might catch a piece of death."  No two Fugazi albums have sounded the same.  No two Fugazi albums will ever sound the same, because they are still running.

I'm convinced that one of the members of Fugazi has synesthesia, because I have synesthesia and the majority of these songs are red to me ("Birthday Pony" and "Do You Like Me" are yellow).  I think one of them saw the same thing when it came time to name this album.

End Hits

"End Hits" deserves the shit that it's gotten from Fugazi fans, but that doesn't stop it from being a great album.

If "Red Medicine" was the beginning of a new era for the band, "End Hits" is them pushing the envelope of that era, pushing and prodding their boundaries, seeing what the limits are.  It's as if they were pleasantly surprised by the music they discovered they could make on the last album and now they are cautiously seeing if it actually suits them.

"Break" is the perfect first song for this album.  It's got a classic Fugazi groove layered underneath this relaxed, almost jazzy clean guitar part -- and is that piano I hear?  It sure is, this time used as an instrument and not as a vehicle for noise (as with the last album).  McKaye's vocals in the center, when it's just him and a single guitar, are strange, but still fit the song perfectly.

Follow that up with classic Guy rocker, "Place Position" and you've got the makings of a fantastic new school Fugazi record, albeit one that seems definable.  But you'd be getting ahead of yourself.

Joe Lally always seems to sing on the more atmospheric songs and "Recap Modotti" is no exception.  We're venturing into stoner rock territory here, which is shocking, given that none of them are stoners.  Even the teases of a build up ultimately don't pay off.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just not something you'd expect from Fugazi...which is something you should get used to over the course of this album.

And while we're on the subject of weird song arrangements, here comes "No Surprises."

But then, like the parting of rain clouds, we get "Five Corporations," a fantastic example of how new Fugazi
can still rock out like old Fugazi, but with more complex music.  And we've even got that trademark Fugazi anti-establishment going on.  Seriously, that tempo change for the chorus is unbelievable, particularly when it's followed by just bass, drums, and vocals for the verse.

"Caustic Acrostic" is a great song, a modern day Guy-style Fugazi song.  You could tell, since Red Medicine, that Guy had gotten away from playing chords.  I have to think that was a response to Ian McKaye's style of guitar.  It really did make them a better band.

And then things get weird again.  "Close Caption" and "Floating Boy" are spacey, atmospheric jams that push the boundaries of traditional song structure.  They're glorious little oddities amongst the larger Fugazi library, wonderful experiments by a band that is no longer bound by a static sound.

We bounce back with "Foreman's Dog," which is surprisingly straight forward for this album.  It kind of reminds me of something to be found on "Steady Diet."  And speaking of straight forward, then we get "Arpeggiator" which is ostensibly just a scale, but somehow Fugazi makes it great.

"Guilford Falls" feels like another new school Guy song, with an initial hook that is made up of picking each string rather than strumming chords.  It's also got the classic Fugazi "introduce a new part by having just one guitar play it, then everyone eventually kicks in."  Again, it's a complex song with layered guitars and an interesting structure, but it still has some classic Fugazi qualities.

 And then we hit "Pink Frosty."  It is possible there's no more maligned Fugazi song in their catalog than "Pink Frosty."  It's understandable: it's barely a song.  It sounds like someone took some drugs and mixed an outtake for the album.  It's completely insubstantial, which would be much less of a problem if it weren't more than four minutes long.  So we've clearly gone back to the weird portion of this record.

Yes, the last song, "F/D" is bizarre, but it's only bizarre because it appears to be two completely different songs smashed on to the same track.  What's really interesting about it is that it's a clear breakdown between an Ian song and a Guy song.  The very quiet opening features a straightforward chord progression with McKaye's rhyme-y punk rock vocals and an up tempo drum beat.  But there's a break and then the Guy song comes crashing down, full of dramatic guitar and vocals.  Yet for the twangy, high end guitar part, buried underneath it is a simple, driving guitar part that is, again, classic McKaye.

After a few seconds of silence when the song ends, we get outtakes from "No Surprises," like a reminder that this album was all about experimentation.

"Red Medicine" was a much more together album, but "End Hits" was a clear bridge to where Fugazi was headed.