While Steady Diet Of Nothing was more dextrous and intricate than the largely anthemic 1990 release Repeater, or the Fugazi, Margin Walker and 3 Songs extended players that came out between 1988 and 1990, the 1991 album didn’t fully take the shackles off, held back further by the flat self-production. Thus, as Repeater remains regarded as an essential punk rock album, the more ambitious Fugazi was borne out in the years following, as more songs were crafted for their next album.
In On The Kill Taker caused an initial furore before consumers even cracked open the disc. The band were big enough for larger stores to sell their records, but, barcodes being a requirement, most record labels integrate one into the back cover. Helped by the fact that guitarist Ian MacKaye happened to be co-founder and co-owner of Dischord records, band and label had the same viewpoint that the band’s art package was not to be disturbed, and managed to wrest a compromise. An external sticker with a barcode on was to be used so that SoundScan could do its thing. With the long list of ethical stances and confrontations Fugazi accumulated in their time, this one was largely lost in the din of the record itself, although it’s nice for me to have an album with no barcode sitting on my shelf. Having said that, all the barcode would have covered is some incoherent rambling. The artwork is pale pastel blues and yellows, with old style typewriter font and messy scribbling in amongst lined paper and the Washington Monument, with some black in the inlay and a rambling letter, a plain blue disc, and a bit between the CD and the back cover that resembles one of those newfangled post-it notes with lines on them. I’m sure they didn’t exist in 1993, and it’s just some yellow lined paper worked into the booklet, but I like the way that it looks as if the band stuck a personalised post-it note under the CD, even if it does just repeat “I will not lie” a dozen or so times.
Anyway, about the music that had to cut through this. A bleeping guitar fades in, and then another high-pitched guitar joins in, followed by the rhythm section. Bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty manage to sound ominous and yet funky, which they do so often and so well. All give way to a snarling guitar, and then, on the minute mark all come in, joined by a noticeably venomous MacKaye bellowing out social critiques. The only weak point in the quite brutal onslaught of “Facet Squared” is the pace, which sounds quite pedestrian once the song gets going despite the guitar thrashing, which is exaggerated primarily by some uncharacteristically dull drumming. The same can’t be said of “Public Witness Program”, introduced by a rapidfire snare. While “Facet Squared” was like being slowly clubbed to death, Guy Picciotto’s first contribution is nimble and incisive. Piercing vocals puncture a song delivered at a blistering pace that leaves everything from the previous record in its wake. A simple but vicious guitar solo is punctuated with… hand claps? “On a Fugazi record? It’ll never work”, you might say. Yet, despite being one of the last sorts of cheery things you’d expect on any Fugazi record, let alone this cutting track, it actually works quite well.
Suddenly everything goes very quiet. Some very subdued guitars intertwine. MacKaye is whispering, and the music sounds very threatening, and it occasionally erupts briefly. A loud snare, a shouted word, or a few rising notes from rising guitars, but it always pulls back. We’re brought back to the less disturbing guitars intertwining. Two minutes in, “Returning The Screw” appears to come to a quiet stop, but then the guitars come in again, gently building up, until the band suddenly explodes into life. MacKaye is again full of bile, sounding more like himself from his Minor Threat days. The song abruptly ends, and some more subdued guitar noodling builds itself in. This isn’t “Returning The Screw” anymore though, and “Smallpox Champion” starts charging at full tilt soon enough. Picciotto delivers what is perhaps his most directly political Fugazi song, a trait usually aligned with MacKaye’s writing, and cuts into the treatment of native American tribes with gusto, preferring to associate the actions with the America he lives in rather than, as the nationalist way of thinking would rather have it, foreign colonists that don’t represent the star-spangled banner. The music cuts out briefly, save for some downplayed drum clicking, but starts roaring forth again after a couple of seconds. The final minute sees some slightly more palatable guitar, some much funkier bass, and some catchy chanting, although the aggression isn’t shelved.
After another sharp stop, “Rend It” begins straight away with clattering instruments. Picciotto gets a second track in a row, in the first part of a three track segue, but the songs continue to be unpredictable. “Rend It” perhaps represents In On The Kill Taker as well as anything on the album. Complete instrumental silence follows the end of the descending instruments, cut only by Picciotto’s searing vocals. The guitars wince in the background after a verse, and then everything winds up for the chorus of jagged riffs and harsh vocal harmonies. Some MacKaye screams followed by Picciotto wails see out the song. Before the track can fully fade out, some clean sliding guitars are followed by quietly spoken vocals for MacKaye’s “23 Beats Off”. Some distortion gets added in and MacKaye clears out his lungs to build up the track, but the other aspects are kept in check. A more menacing guitar with some bending strings comes in, and the second windup is more penetrating. The song gives way to feedback and a solitary drum. However, there’s nearly four minutes left on the track. It’s all feedback solos, and not particularly crafty or tuneful ones at that. What was a great track has more or less been ruined, and it’s no surprise that this was truncated to about a minute on the rare occasion that it was played live. The feedback dies away almost enough, but another segue is made into “Sweet And Low”. Although he’d provided backing vocals in the earliest days of the band before Picciotto joined, Lally’s vocal debut for the band wouldn’t come until 1995, with “By You” featuring on Red Medicine. “Sweet And Low” almost was, but Lally couldn’t find the right words for his composition. It’s got a nice bass sequence to it, but overall it’s a bit boring, and very placid.
Canty introduces Picciotto’s “Cassavetes”, which brings back scratching guitars. Apart from the drumming, the track isn’t particularly special, but brings us back into more familiar territory, and sees Picciotto reminding us that he hasn’t forgotten how to roll his an R like he like on “Dear Justice Letter” on the previous album. “Great Cop” sounds almost like a hybrid between the opening two tracks, with MacKaye’s anthemic vocals and the directness of “Facet Squared”, but with a little more urgency, and less screwing around. “Walken’s Syndrome” gives us another dose of raw feedback, but less than thirty seconds in, the song announces itself. Picciotto continues his cinematic theme, referring to the car crash described by Christopher Walken’s character in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (if memory serves me correctly, Jawbreaker added soundbites from the very same soliloquy to the beginning and end of “Jet Black”, released a little later on 1995’s controversial Dear You). Following from the previous track, “Walken’s Syndrome” is unflinchingly relentless and acerbic, and ten songs in, the first-time listener is completely drained.
After an exhausting effort, Fugazi finishes with a couple of heartfelt radio-friendly love ballads, with the one exception in that they don’t actually do that. The violent nature is gradually reined in, but MacKaye and Picciotto each sign off in style. The former provides “Instrument”, full of gloom, extended, strangled vocals, a belittled groove, and a supreme final minute as quickfire guitar noise gives way to powerful riffs and strong vocals. Picciotto has the final say, and his amazing vocal performance on the album (I don't like his voice, but it's been on top form throughout) finally seems to be tiring, dying amongst the classy string picking of “Last Chance For A Slow Dance”. But it’s not to be. Despite the slow tempo, the instrument power comes in during the chorus, only to be beaten by the vocals. A lonely guitar piece closes out the album with a hush.
The sheer catharsis of this record is unrivalled. Many good records manage to balance flow and juxtaposition well to give you a sense of dynamics, but never as Fugazi did it here, so absolutely. Even the weakest section between the wall of feedback at the end of “23 Beats Off” and the calmness of “Sweet And Low” only serves to highlight the extremities that this album achieves, and these overindulgences seem not just forgivable, but almost necessary ingredients to achieve the phenomenal listening experience of it.
It may come as no surprise that there was trouble making this record. The band attempted to do some recording with Steve Albini, but remarkably couldn’t achieve a sound they were happy with, so they went back home to record in the Inner Ear, and it’s hard to conceive that this was a mistake, despite Albini’s reputation. It may not be my absolute favourite album, as I don’t see anything wrong with going for ones that work for me. However, of all the albums that I would ever have considered in my top ten, or even top twenty records, In On The Kill Taker is perhaps the most poignant definition of a boundary-pushing unit at its creative peak. While Steady Diet Of Nothing was at times carried through weaker moments by the rhythm section, the entire band is on the money for almost this entire album.
Personal picks: Public Witness Program, 23 Beats Off (first half), Smallpox Champion
Picks for others: Smallpox Champion, Last Chance For A Slow Dance, Instrument
Relative weaknesses: Sweet And Low, 23 Beats Off (second half)
01 – Facet Squared
02 – Public Witness Program
03 – Returning The Screw
04 – Smallpox Champion
05 – Rend It
06 – 23 Beats Off
07 – Sweet And Low
08 – Cassavetes
09 – Great Cop
10 – Walken’s Syndrome
11 – Instrument
12 – Last Chance For A Slow Dance