Fugazi - Instrument
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When you hear the name Fugazi, you are as likely to think of their $5 shows, their DIY aesthetic, and their straightforward political stance as you are to think of the actual music they have made in their 14 years together as a band. They are one of the few bands in the world of punk and indie rock to have such a palpable identity beyond their music, especially when considering that this identity isn’t of the “cult of personality” type of someone like Bob Pollard or even Fugazi’s friend Henry Rollins. Fugazi is famous for their ethics and integrity, and rightfully so; their community activism, for example, extends so far beyond their music it has become a way of life for Fugazi, and they have contributed an incredible amount to redefining conventional notions of record distribution and record label politics. But you’ve probably heard all that already, even if you’ve never heard any of Fugazi’s music. What you wouldn’t know about them if you were only familiar with the legend surrounding their ethics is that Fugazi has constantly strived to create innovative music, all the while incorporating their personal politics into each and every song with a fervor and intelligence that is remarkable when you take into account that they have released 9 full-length albums and several EP’s. Like any band attempting in earnest to evolve musically, as opposed to simply refining their existing sound, Fugazi sometimes falls short of musical perfection. They have nonetheless indisputably proven to be successful with a higher frequency than nearly any other band in music.
The best example of their dedication to constant self-development is on their 1999 album Instrument, which also serves as the soundtrack to their intimate documentary of the same name. It would have been easy, and obvious, for a band of Fugazi’s caliber and staying power to cull the soundtrack from their back catalogue; but, being Fugazi, they decided to compose the soundtrack from unreleased songs, demos, and outtakes. They further raised the stakes by quite intentionally choosing not to include songs in the archetypal Fugazi sound (i.e. nothing sounds like “Waiting Room,” “Birthday Pony,” or “Turnover,”) instead opting for tracks that are almost exclusively instrumental and prove to mellow and introspective. It is for these same reasons that Instrument is not usually considered as an essential album in the Fugazi canon, even being unfairly referred to by some as “post-hardcore noodling.” Fugazi, from time to time, had certainly departed from their hallmark sound prior to Instrument, such as the dub elements sometimes found on the Red Medicine album, but they had never done it for the course of an entire album; nor had they done it so effectively. In spite of Instrument’s lack of sheer vitriol, it still makes for a powerful album and is still recognizably Fugazi.
Instrument starts off with “Pink Frosty,” a track featuring a gently plodding guitar and some deft but understated drumming. Later in the track some unidentifiable samples (plywood falling on concrete?) and unintelligible vocals are added, contributing to an overall feeling of uneasiness familiar to plenty of other Fugazi songs. “Lusty Scripps” also draws on recognizable Fugazi musical aesthetics, with a propulsive rhythm and some excellent, taut guitar work that sounds harsh without sounding angry. “Afterthought” almost sounds playful, something not often heard on Fugazi albums. “I’m So Tired,” one of four vocal tracks on the album, is an equally large change of pace, consisting of only Guy Picciotto singing over a somber piano. The track has a pensive, almost sad feel to it, and has a poignancy that makes it one of the high points of the album.
Another highlight comes in the form of a demo version of “Arpeggiator,” consisting of a sparkling guitar arpeggio being played over an incredible set of beats from drummer Brendan Canty. “Arpeggiator” in this incarnation becomes a crystalline, soaring song, and is what I would consider to be Fugazi’s most beautiful moment, a far cry from their more acerbic output. Other exceptional songs include “Turkish Disco,” which has an almost-funky bassline that leads into a cascade of piercing guitar spikes; a demo of “Guilford Fall,” which has a punk-rock buildup introducing a series of terse guitars, finally releasing a wave of multi-layered rock from every instrument; and the album closer “Slo Crostic,” a confident, superbly structured piece of guitar interplay between Picciotto and Ian McKaye over another compelling bass line from Joe Lally.
Instrument is not as visceral as the rest of Fugazi’s output, and its songs are therefore often overlooked when considering the best work Fugazi has done. Musically, however, the best songs on Instrument show the members of Fugazi working together even more cohesively than they ever had previously, all while taking steps in new sonic directions. In spite of the weight and heavy-handedness of the politics that are so inseperable from Fugazi, it is nothing short of refreshing to see a band so iconic and political be equally dedicated to the evolution of their music, and to do it all so successfully. Instrument is a testament to the sheer musical aptitude of Fugazi, and as such, deserves to be considered a classic.
By: Tony Van Groningen
Published on: 2003-09-01
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