Ask anyone for a top 10 list of seminal punk bands and chances are that Minor Threat will rank pretty high. Ian MacKaye’s Washington, D.C.-based group invented the fast, sometimes in-tune — but usually not — politically charged hardcore that dominated the early ’80s punk scene.
More obscure but no less influential was Embrace, which MacKaye formed in 1985. This band, along with Brendan Canty and Guy Picciotto’s Rites of Spring, laid the foundation for emo, exploring more melodic composition and intensely personal lyrics.
Born two years later, Fugazi brought together the founding members of these three bands, adding newcomer Joe Lally on bass. Despite being a who’s who of classic punk rock, Fugazi single-handedly changed the lagging genre’s vocabulary over the course of seven full-length releases. Taking the infectious brand of art-rock, recently cleaned up by the Talking Heads, and injecting it with the energy of hardcore, Fugazi expanded what was acceptable in punk; simple three-chord blowouts gave way to mathematical guitar lines slinking over funky beat. And so post-punk was born.
Musically and lyrically, “The Argument” is no great departure from the rest of Fugazi’s catalogue. Not quite as aggressive as 1993’s “In on the Kill Taker,” it still packs quite a bit of passion into 10 songs. The opener, “Cashout,” kicks off with a “Gish”-era Smashing Pumpkins drum pattern, building energy before being undercut by a gentle bass line and subdued vocals. This hushed rocker explodes mid-song, complete with MacKaye’s trademark shout and screeching cellos.
“Full Disclosure,” provides a classic example of the Fugzai sound. Frantically picked guitars throw you into staccato drums and bass hits — then someone screams, as the lyric sheet indicates, “I want out (x 1000).” Amidst the chaos, a big dumb New Wave hook emerges and tames this post-punk beast.
Several tracks into “The Argument,” Fugazi turns the car around. Immediately following the hyperactivity of “Epic Problem,” the guitars become clean, the vocals accented by female back-up singers, and the songs become prettier. “The Kill” easily stands out from the other softer tunes. Here, Modest Mouse’s musical debt to Fugazi becomes perfectly clear. A strong bass line and ambient guitar float over Canty’s hypnotic drum work, punctuated by a subtle chorus worked into the verse at seemingly random intervals.
“Ex-spectator” functions as the only half-way traditional punk song of the album. Ian mocks critics who accuse him of being too preachy, singing through the scratch of distortion, which all but buries the chord progression. This tongue-in-cheek tune finds him “looking out for cars and morality / trying to find some sort of geometry/ avoiding mistakes/ keep an eye on every step I take.” The boy who once screamed, “I’ve got straight edge,” and created a movement of the same name has grown up and learned to laugh at himself.
Continuing to explore their sound, without regard for the critics or billboard charts, Fugazi embodies this maturity. “The Argument” doesn’t take itself too seriously, fall into art-rock pretensions, or over-moralize; still, it remains a fun, yet challenging listen throughout. But alas, gone is the youthful rage that once led Minor Threat and the Rites of Spring.