Wednesday, August 27, 2008

49 Greatest Albums: Fugazi-'Steady Diet Of Nothing'

Indignation and social criticism do not often make for compelling music if you ask me. For every 'Straight Outta Compton' there are 15 Arrested Developments rhyming every '-tion' in the book (emancipation, resignation, disinformation, reputation, etc. etc.). If you are preaching to the converted you should simply preach and drop the music. Strong moral centers reacting to modern society might be great fodder for research papers but it rarely ROCKS.

Fugazi are the exception to this rule. I've not yet been able to put my finger on why and I've been listening to Fugazi from the moment they came into recorded existence back in 1987.

Context is everything so in order to understand 'Steady Diet Of Nothing', today's entry in the O'Malley Pantheon of Greatness, you must return to the scene of the crime. Released in 1991, 'Steady Diet' was their third album. They had risen out of the ashes of several DC hardcore bands in '87, released their debut '13 Songs' in '89, and followed that up with 'Repeater' in '90.

Desert Storm was raging in Iraq. We were spectators to war for the first time. CNN exploded. The Internet was still a gleam in Al Gore's eye. It is hard to look back at this as a time of innocence. But as we stare down the barrel of a Post-9/11 world even the chaos of Bush the First seems quaint in comparison.

'Steady Diet Of Nothing' is a voice crying out in the wilderness. Far from being didactic or preachy, the album is simply a mirror held up and left too long in front of an unwilling public.

Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto trade off singing their own compositions. The interplay between their vocal styles is a giant part of the appeal of the band. MacKaye is gruff and staccato, barking his manifestos like a hybrid of a carnival barker and a drill sergeant. Picciotto is mellifluous and nasal, stretching out notes to their breaking point and beyond. The two singers also spar with their guitars. Sputtering and spitting and grinding each other up they create an interlocking cry of anguish.

The rhythm section is precise to the point of danger. They bring to mind a POW running at top speed along a fence of barbed wire. Occasionally a spotlight brings them to a dead halt and you can hear the fear in the silence. Then they are off and running again, leaping right back to full speed and volume.

There are no declarations of right and wrong. They are as leery of solution as they are fatigued by misdirection. In 'Stacks', MacKaye goes beyond politics and into the realm of linguistics.

Language keeps me locked and repeating
Language keeps me locked and repeating
Language keeps me locked and repeating
America is just a word but I use it

I type those words out and it hits home just how powerful the music is. Upon hearing this song you will feel a strange connection to the uneasy Roman at the height of the Empire, thinking that there couldn't possibly be a day when Rome wouldn't rule. But deep down they were all Nero waiting with a fiddle.

I could go track by track but to be honest my articulation fails. Just know this. When I think of the Gulf War I think of Ian MacKaye in 'Nice New Outfit' bellowing the following...

You're number one with a bullet
That's money well spent
Your mouth plastered like poster
Address yourself success
You can pinpoint your chimney
And drop one down its length
In your nice new outfit
Sorry about the mess

The SCUD missile has become just another fashion accessory to a public CONSUMING the war. The illusion of boundary has fallen away and we are merely the tribe you fear.

This album is not well-loved by Fugazi fans. Perhaps it is rigorous to an almost fascistic degree. Perhaps every sing-along makes you feel like a part of a blood crazed mob. Perhaps it hits too close to home. Most political music allows you the pleasure of superiority, be it left or right. Toby Keith and Bruce Springsteen are two sides of the same coin. But that is still the coin of the realm.

With this album, Fugazi somehow project us into a world where the United States is merely an idea, a communal projection. And that isn't some idyllic community broadcasting its best self for the world to see. It is a place slaves built. It is a place the poor go to die. It is a place you do not want to be late at night.

No rhymed combination of -isms or -tions can keep the slouching beast from roughing us up. Hey Nero, we've got 250 million fiddles, can we come up on the hill with you and watch ourselves burn?

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