Review Summary: Fierce? Yes. Dissonant? Yes. Great in spite of it? Yes.
In On The Kill Taker, while not Fugazi's finest work, is certainly one of their most bone-crushing. MacKaye and Picciotto's guitars rule the day, with Lally's bass being a little less prominent than it is on preceding and later works. However, this decision makes for an album that is excellent simply due to its raw, gut-ripping anger.
Opener 'Facet Squared' begins with far-away, high-pitched guitar squawks that almost sound electronic. They swell and fade, building a moody, strong atmosphere. At about 0:24, the rumble of bass and drums arrives, and shortly after, a single guitar explodes into the mix. But, it is somehow removed from the angular six-string stabs of 'Repeater', being full, chunky chords layered with distortion. MacKaye's baritone roar dominates the song, pummeling the listener over the head with his message 'Pride no longer has definition / Everybody wears it / It always fits'. A song that grabs your shoulders and screams into your face - electrifying.
This is quickly followed by the fast-paced snarl of 'Public Witness Program'. Picciotto takes over from MacKaye, his higher pitch making for a more wiry, sinewy track than the monolithic 'Facet Squared'. The guitars still scrape and burn into the ear like magnesium flares, and the chorus is a simple chant which you will find yourself barking along to; 'I'm paid to walk around and / I'm paid to stand around". This song barely gives you time to gasp for breath, and continues the face-smashing impact of the opener.
'Returning The Screw' slows everything down, with gentle, rolling guitar and soft bass, and even MacKaye cools off for a while, delivering his lines in a soft, almost-whisper. But this is Fugazi, and sure enough, about halfway through, the band strike with ear-splitting alacrity, the vocals tearing back in like a petrol bomb with some of the fiercest bellowing yet. A mid-tempo atom bomb.
The next song, 'Smallpox Champion', opens with silence, with slowly quivering guitars rising in the mix. Picciotto utilises simple repeated yells in the verses that will set your blood boiling, and the chorus continues in a similar vein, with one squealing guitar being a backdrop to the low-end thrash of the other as Picciotto spits declamatory cries with real anger; 'What is good for the future / What is good for the past / What is good for the future / Won't last!". This is vintage Picciotto fare, akin to 'Repeater' or 'Blueprint'.
'Rend It' reminds of 'Returning The Screw', its slower tempo not detracting one bit from the wild yelling and slashing guitar lines, and is part of a one-two with '23 Beats Off'. A slow-burning growl which unfolds for the first three minutes, and then at about halfway, Brendan Canty holds a simple, montonous drum thump, while a cacophony of abject noise terrorism builds around him. Almost too much to bear; there are few bands that can create such a riotous thump as Fugazi.
'Sweet And Low' is a detour from the rage seen before, and Lally's bass peels off warm, groovy lines while the guitars slip and slide in a near-funk style. In spite of being entirely instrumental, the song still commands attention in its quiet, studied coolness.
'Cassavettes', a fierce diatribe against Hollywood, clicks and jerks along, with dub-like bass providing the backdrop for squalling guitar. Picciotto's lyrics are as sharp and incisive as ever; 'If it's not for sale you can't buy it buy it / Sad-eyed mogul reaching for your wallet / Like hand to holster why don't you try it try it". Mean and dark, reminding of earlier Fugazi milestone 'Suggestion'.
MacKaye comes back to the mic for Minor Threat-esque 'Great Cop', a no-holds-barred hardcore barnstormer. It slices away the tempo changes seen on 'Returning The Screw' and 'Rend It' and distills the fury into just under two minutes of energy. A song that will put a fire in your heart.
'Walken's Syndrome' is somewhat similar to 'Smallpox Champion', but as that song is excellent, it doesn't really matter.
'Instrument' incorporates atypical rhythms and walls of guitar. MacKaye's screams are so drawn out that they end up juddering like a train grinding to a halt. "We need an instrument/To take a measurement/To find out if loss could weigh/We need to know value/We need to place value/In case it all comes true," he opines, the song's sheer rawness cutting right to the bone.
'Last Chance For A Slow Dance' scales back the fire and vitriol, being sombre and slow, the guitars flaring up intermittently, slapping you awake just as you get accustomed to the quieter sound. And then, with a few guitar and bass plucks, it's all over.
In On The Kill Taker is an album that requires multiple listens, as on your first attempt you may be simply overwhelmed by the napalm guitar lines and vocal fire-breathing. But keep pressing on, and you will find a rewarding and striking album that deserves to be remembered. A great work from one of the finest bands of our time.