It’s difficult, and maybe impossible, to overstate just how sorely missed Fugazi is in 2015. The quartet’s DIY ethics, all-ages stipulations, and $5 tickets have hardened into legend, though its music — bracing, intelligent, idiosyncratic — hardly warrants afterthought status. In foresight, the group’s discography resembles that of rock’s greatest runs, nearly every record more thoughtful, more astonishing than the last. The apex came with 2001’s The Argument, an album of such masterful, multilayered grace it seemed to take a decade to reveal itself — but by then, only silence.
It’d be nice to have Ian MacKaye on standby, bleeding insight into the smoldering wreckage of the music industry in 2K15, the Spotify Wars, the “emo revival” — anything. It’d be nicer to have another original Fugazi album, maybe a tour of the all-ages venues that still stand. Instead, we have this blast from an increasingly distant post-hardcore past. While Sleater-Kinney’s recent box-set reissue served to rekindle interest in the band just before its long-awaited reunion, Fugazi’s gift from the vaults seems to be just that: an archival gift.
First Demo collects 35 minutes’ worth of recordings from early 1988, when Fugazi, still fresh from the ruins of Rites of Spring, had incredibly performed together fewer than a dozen times. “Incredibly” because First Demo is a near-fully formed statement of intent from the fledgling band; there is nothing amateurish or fumbling about this material, nothing even particularly demo-like about these demos, aside from the tentative bass rumbles and spoken grunts that open the set. First Demo proves what fans have long known, that Fugazi was in this sense more like the Stooges than the Stones: brashly confident and wholly defined from Track One, Side One, Album One.
That’s “Waiting Room”, in Fugazi’s case (yes, Fugazi is technically an EP, but the 13 Songs compilation retroactively hardened into the band’s perceived debut in the CD era). It’s an immediately familiar opener here, albeit with the tempo slowed and Guy Picciotto’s assorted grunts and howls quieted in the mix. The album’s opening trifecta also contains Repeater’s “Merchandise” and “Furniture” (which surfaced belatedly on 2001’s Furniture EP). These three form a veritable early Fugazi starter set in bass lines (steady and propulsive), dynamics (quiet-LOUD-quiet-LOUD — remember, this was two months before Surfer Rosa), and politics (earnestly anti-capitalist slogans and all). Go ahead and spot the differences: “Merchandise” has a ham-fisted “A dollar earned / A dollar spent” chant that’s absent from later versions, “Furniture” a tentative, stumbling guitar take that’s half-drowned by Joe Lally’s bass work, while Margin Walker classic “And the Same” is slowed and stretched past the five-minute mark and “Joe #1” gets the opposite treatment.
Of most interest to Fugazi fans, though, will be those tracks that were left off 13 Songs and Repeater altogether and which appear here for the first time on a Fugazi album. Those track-listing decisions seem to have had as much to do with redundancy as quality concerns. “Turn Off Your Guns” is a decent anti-suicide rant, if a little elementary in its funk-bass posturing and not as fun as the rumbling outburst that is “In Defense of Humans”. (The latter appeared on Dischord’s out-of-print 1989 State of the Union compilation.) “The Word”, meanwhile, plays out like a less compelling “Suggestion”; it, too, seizes on young MacKaye’s tendency to repeat a set of phrase over and over before morphing into a spacier instrumental coda.
First Demo’s material is sound, even if its purpose is a little muddled: it doesn’t exactly humanize the band the way the Instrument soundtrack does, and nor does it contain much that wasn’t sharpened and refined in time for the 13 Songs EPs. But Fugazi are famously dutiful archivists, and First Demo works as a document of a band that was better in its first months starting out than many of its contemporaries ever would hope to be. If there’s a meaning to the timing of the release, it’s not yet parsed. Maybe there’s more to come. Maybe not. That’s fine. I am a patient boy.