Monday, April 16, 2018

Notes from the Record Room: Bring on the Kill Taker

I was in Ocean City, New Jersey with a friend, sitting outside on a deck with a boombox resting between us. It was 1993. On this particular evening, I had something new that I wanted to pop into the tape deck I’d picked up earlier at the Surf Mall, a boardwalk superstore packed with clothing, posters, and other youth-marketed, alterna-junk. It was a cassette of Fugazi’s latest release, In On The Kill Taker. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was eager to hear it.

In the song “Facet Squared,” frets are gently tapped, a couple sharp notes are plucked, a relatively understated rhythm gains traction and the sounds gradually build. And then all you hear are guitars cycling through a couple of glorious phrases as all other elements go silent. I felt elated when those riffs peaked, as if triumph had beset my ears, offering assurances that I’d found something for me, something that was going to be important to me for the rest of my life. I’m admittedly romanticizing this experience, (likely to a fault), but I distinctly remember feeling some sense of relief once Ian MacKaye had begun to shout his throat raw over Brendan Canty’s bucket snare, caught up and enamored by the loud. I may have exclaimed, “YES!” I didn’t know it at the time, but In On The Kill Taker was my introduction to one of the greatest rock groups ever. 

 

Fugazi’s In On The Killer was the band’s third full-length release. Out at a time when music industry hunger for “alterna”-fodder was perhaps at its zenith, Fugazi stayed their own course, refusing MTV airplay and keeping to a self-sustaining model that enabled the band to maintain independence, release the albums they wanted to and guard their own philosophy. As the underground became farmland for major labels, Fugazi rejected all offers. Ticket prices were $5 for every show, which were performed for crowds of all ages and completely free of t-shirts and merchandise. I think it’s fair to say that no major label would’ve agreed to any of that.

In On The Kill Taker was flipped a lot during the subsequent months of summer into fall, from the remaining shrieks of feedback at the end of “23 Beats Off” to the lonely strums of guitar notes that carry “Last Chance For A Slow Dance” to a close. The excellence and intensity of “Facet Squared” was taken up a notch by the immediate rush of “Public Witness Program,” a hook to remember (“I like to walk around and… I’m paid to stand around and…”) as vocalist/guitarist Guy Picciotto applied hardcore-level speed to his distinct register. I hadn’t yet really explored hardcore, the exception(s) at the time being Black Flag releases and In God We Trust, Inc. by Dead Kennedys. MacKaye’s vitriolic, sans-chemical musings via Minor Threat were unknown to me, as was Revolution Summer and the bands (One Last Wish, Rites of Spring, Happy Go Licky, Embrace) and circumstances that ultimately led to the formation of Fugazi. 

 

I was wise enough, however, to understand what evolved punk rock was, acknowledging that the early 90s was the time for that sort of thing. Every alterna-weirdo-flannel-donning-buzz-clip act had a punk foundation even if they weren’t making what could be categorized as punk music. With 1992’s Check Your Head, the Beastie Boys provide a great example of this, having seen an opportunity to explore their hardcore roots, returning to their instruments and merging rock, funk, punk, and hip-hop into an (for its time) unconventional concept. The album was perfect for its era and sold me on the notion that punk rock provided a solid primer for more creative possibilities.

Fugazi did this as well. As an overall assessment of the band’s catalogue, a consistent and flawless body of work I will add, the band’s principles and integrity recall their days of fast-loud-n-angry while their willingness to experiment and progress could’ve been viewed as elitist by the hardcore set. As comparison, I think of Black Flag’s ambitious, albeit inconsistent, musical growth. 

 

As the hair grew lengthy and the jams more complex, it’s unfortunate that Black Flag’s development is so poorly documented, mostly due to legal trouble that barred the band from releasing albums for a stretch of time following 1981’s milestone LP, Damaged. By the time their follow-up, My War, was released, the band was exploring new ideas and the resultant injection of Sabbath-ian metallic sludge was deemed alienating by hardcore kids who wanted more of the same. Doubling down with jazz-centric instrumental (The Process of Weeding Out) and spoken-word releases (Family Man), Black Flag’s want of creative freedom speaks to the avenues that punk rock can and should open, though disillusioned fans will often perceive this level of momentum as some sort of violation. 

Fans get pissed off when they feel left behind. For as often as “sell-out” is applied to any artist deviating slightly from the script, it’s important to take inventory of a band whose members wish to move past their younger selves. I eventually connected with Minor Threat’s very seminal discography. And while the dramatic setup of “Returning the Screw,” the desperation of “Rend It,” and the implied longing I always gleaned from the instrumental “Sweet and Low” don’t share much with the hyper-realized aggression of “Seeing Red,” “Screaming at a Wall,” or “In My Eyes,” there’s no actual loss of conviction or even volume. Fugazi is just less black and white in sound and content. The anti-colonial sentiment of “Smallpox Champion” is as strong a societal and political indictment as “Bottled Violence” is a statement against alcohol-fueled conflict. There’s still plenty of rage to distill, plenty of passion to absorb. “Selling out” isn’t facilitated so much by modifying how the message is delivered as it is the complete and total abandonment of the message itself. At least that’s how I feel about it. 


While I can’t say that this cassette is solely responsible for the record collection I’ve been amassing for the past couple of decades, it’s informed a heavy portion of that collection. In On The Kill Taker granted me access to independent rock music and widened my scope of performers, bands, and albums to locate and absorb. And for all that access, I still consider Fugazi’s output as essential as any albums from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, or any other decorated pillar of rock’s continuing story. 



Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead
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