Twenty years after its release, Fugazi’s Red Medicine persists as a defining turning point in the career of post-hardcore’s most accomplished band…
by: Michael Shields
I spent my formative years in Northern Virginia, NoVa as it is known to the locals. High school just outside of The District was many things. It was parents with occupations so classified they could hardly tell their family what they did for a living. It was Five Guys burgers and fries, the original location in Arlington before the brand spread like wildfire. It was attending shows at the 9:30 Club, The Bayou (if so lucky), The Barns at Wolftrap, and US Air Arena. It was go-go on bump, hip-hop on blast, and all sub-genres of rock just blaring out of car speakers as my friends and I blazed trees in random cul-de-sacs. And it was Fugazi. Heapings and heapings of Fugazi – the District’s own.
The DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) had a claim on Fugazi from the very beginning that felt positively visceral. Much like anyone who went to school in Athens, Georgia has a special place in their heart for R.E.M, or those who went to Virginia Tech have a link – whether they like it or not – to Michael (and Marcus) Vick. It was like that with Fugazi, as if being in the vicinity and in the know empowered you with a secret that you knew was of such substance that you could hardly contain yourself. Fugazi ((The name, chosen by MacKaye, was pulled from Mark Baker’s Nam, a compilation of stories of Vietnam War veterans, where it was used as slang for “fucked up,” or more exactly as an acronym for “Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In [into a body bag].”)) formed in Washington D.C. in 1987, and began releasing records on Dischord, the famed do-it-yourself record label that was birthed by Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson in the early 80s ((Formed in order to release Teen Idles’ album Minor Disturbance.)). At conception, Fugazi was comprised of guitarist and vocalist Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty, and the foursome began recording out of the famed “Dischord House,” established in 1980 as Dischord’s headquarters and where Ian has lived since 1981. This epicenter of punk and hardcore rock sits on a shaded side street in Arlington, Virginia. Upon its front steps is where Minor Threat, MacKaye’s hardcore band that preceded Fugazi, posed for their cover of the renowned Salad Days album. And this legendary residence has stood as a cathedral of rock and a symbol of hope to an entire generation of rock enthusiasts.
Although to many, the benign suburban tree-lined, cookie-cutter, overdeveloped confines of Northern Virginia may on the surface appear an unusual place to birth such a movement, those from the area understand the angst and the influences that could give way to such a powerful and aggressive sonic awakening. But while the roots of the band reside just a hair south of the Mason-Dixon line, Fugazi’s fourth studio album, Red Medicine, one which served as a launching pad for a distinctive new and defining sound for the band, has its origins in another seemingly ordinary pocket of the East Coast, just a few hours up Interstate 95, in Guilford, Connecticut.
In the waning months of 1994, the members of Fugazi convened at a secluded country estate known as the “Guilford House,” and it was here where incessant and free-form jamming led to the commencement of a more ambient, spacious, and experimental sound. For months the band played and wrote tirelessly, and just a few weeks into 1995 they whisked the sounds and ideas forged in Guilford back home and into Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, Virginia. Enlisting the help of sound engineer Don Zientara and deciding to produce the album on their own, Fugazi backpedalled from the sort of in your face production style that had become their trademark. Gone was the discordant assault that embodies their previous album, In On The Kill Taker, and in its place stood something more consciously refined. And in this light, Red Medicine manifested a pivotal moment in the history of Fugazi, a change that highlighted an expansion of abilities and a confidence that channeled the beginning of a second musical phase of Fugazi’s existence, a foray into art and experimental rock.
“Your eyes / Like crashing jets / Fixed in stained glass / But not religious” are the lyrics that act as the launching pad for Red Medicine’s enrapturing journey. From the first clangorous, disjointing guitar riffs and bass thunks of “Do You Like Me,” Fugazi welcomes you into their next chapter. In a track that promptly displays a newfound complexity in sound, a lyrical evolution is also evident as “Do You Like Me” contemplates obsession through conceptualizing a major corporate merger between warmongering companies Lockheed and Martin Marietta ((The merger was completed in 1995, and the headquarters of Lockheed Martin was located in Bethesda, Maryland – a stone’s throw from Northern Virginia.)) as an innocent grade school romance. Immediately with this heady metaphor the sophistication at play here was easily perceived, but the raucous track which follows, “Bed for the Scraping,” as rabid a song as Fugazi has ever wrote, acts as a reminder that as much as things may change, so much still remains the same.
In “Latest Disgrace,” a technical prowess reveals itself, particularly in Ian and Guy’s guitar work, where the relentless riffing is paired with more deliberate phrasing that melds seamlessly with Guy’s slurred vocals. The deranged and playful rhyme of “Birthday Boy” gives way to “Forensic Scene,” an exercise in restraint where winks and nods to a foreboding intensity bubble below the surface, but alas and fortuitously, the volcano never erupts, and the subtle, undulating groove maneuvers into the hypnotic intro of “Combination Lock,” drawing the listener into the first of two instrumentals on Red Medicine. “Combination Lock” features intricate and resonating guitar play which simultaneously delights and flusters, all held down aptly by Canty’s commanding drumbeat paired nimbly with Lally’s hurried bubbling bass bawls. The mesmeric groove continues right into the commencement of “Fell, Destroyed,” an incredibly smooth arrangement which boasts the classic call-to-action refrain, ingrained in the heart, mind and souls of all Fugazi fans, “Ring the alarm or you’re sold to dying.”
The noise-punk thrashing psychedelia of “By You” is as subtle as a freight train whipping around within a tornado, and reminiscent of the push and pull of puissance found throughout Sonic Youth’s Dirty, where a disarming atmosphere is forged only to be intruded upon by panic inducing wails and squeals. In “Version,’ the second instrumental on Red Medicine, Fugazi’s affinity for dub music is conceded, and surprisingly, a clarinet is employed to create a profound aura of dissonance that cannot be found anywhere in their catalog prior to this point.
“It’s cold outside and my hands are dry / Skin is cracked and I realize / That I hate the sound of guitars / A thousand grudging young millionaires” begins the acerbic “Target,” a song that deliberately surges the impetus for the home stretch of the album with circulating guitar riffs that spawn a meandering groove. “Back to Base” is blunt, burly, and angry as all hell, and before you know it you’re left with your head spinning, only to be placed directly back into the line of fire with the robust “Drowned City.” Luckily, the brawn is cut admirably with arguably the most impactful track on the album, “Long Distance Runner,” a perfect summation of the venture throughout Red Medicine into the more experimental brand of music Fugazi was now dabbling in. “Long Distance Runner” finds Fugazi brazenly playing around with rhythm and pause, and is a song that is so seductive that you wish it would never end. Fortunately, not only is “Long Distance Runner” a sign of where Fugazi was musically in 1995, but a precursor of the exploratory heights that they would eventually ascend.
Red Medicine is progress. It’s brainy, determined and powerful. It shattered preconceptions of who Fugazi were, and what they were capable of. On their first full-length album released in 1990, Repeater, Fugazi redefined the sound of American hardcore. And on Red Medicine they merge their punk roots with an all-together inventive and dare I say, psychedelic sound. Throughout Red Medicine Fugazi displayed a keen sense of atmospheric awareness, an acute control of space and of the tension invoked through patience, that ultimately created a sound that flaunted a limitless depth.
Fugazi’s influence is so profound and impactful to the canon of American music, but to kids from the DC area, Fugazi and the entire Dischord crew weren’t so different from us. And in that sense they signified hope. Hope that you could rock the fuck out for a living. Hope that if you followed your heart and your dreams that you possibly could do what you love for a living. Hope that we could follow in their footsteps, embodied in that recently unearthed letter from a fourteen-year-old Dave Grohl to Ian MacKaye which read “Good thrash, so I was wondering if you could give me some numbers or people to get in touch with. It would help.” ((The best part of the letter, in my estimation, is that Grohl mentioned the best time he could be reached, after 3pm because of school and before 10pm, bedtime)). Hope that the suffocating hold of suburban youth wasn’t defined by limitations or banality, but of energy, freedom, and integrity – all words that are synonymous with Fugazi. And the essence of this spirit can be found etched in the dynamism and experimentalism of Red Medicine, released two decades ago this month.