In On The Kill Taker


Dischord, 1993

REVIEW BY: Julia Skochko


Leaving a successful band is a little like leaving prison.  You bust out of a confining, rigidly-defined system, only to find your outside options almost as limited.  While freedom sure beats incarceration, you can't help but feel it ought to carry you further than your cousin's couch in Schaumberg.  For many artists, royalties and notoriety turn out to be the equivalent of fifty bucks and a bus ticket.  You wave goodbye to your bandmates, march out the door, and find three preordained paths:  repetition, reinvention, or asking your old manager if you can pick up a few shifts at Chi-Chi's again.

There's an alternative, however, which does not necessitate losing artistic integrity or shilling the Enchilada Explosivo platter.  In honor of one of its finest practitioners, we shall call it The Ian Option.

Minor Threat was the early American hardcore scene's Most Likely to Succeed...smarter and more sober than their peers, yet still capable of Doc-stomping intensity.  Unfortunately, it was a scant three years before intra-band bitchiness permanently neutralized the 'Threat.  Over the next few years, frontman Ian MacKaye blew through a series of rebound bands.  But in 1987, with the founding of Fugazi, a needle fell into a massive metaphorical groove.  Post-hardcore was born.  Ian once again had a steady job (Mr. and Mrs. MacKaye were presumably glad to reclaim their guest bedroom).

More importantly, there was now a viable post-fame pathway.  With Fugazi, MacKaye was able to expand upon his work with Minor Threat.  Rather than disavowing his musical past, he acknowledged both its strengths and weaknesses, building on the former and remediating the latter.  Fugazi's success sent a heartening message to musicians-in-transition: artistic development and pride in one's past aren't mutually exclusive.

Gourmet chefs and literary theorists deconstruct, busting grilled cheeses and "Gilgamesh" down to their component parts.  Musicians, on the other hand, construct.  With Fugazi, MacKaye began with the solid musical marble of Minor Threat.  On each successive album, the group chiseled away, coaxing nuance and complexity from the yowl-along anthems of hardcore.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Like any organic process, it's susceptible to failure.  An errant hammer-tap or incongruous bass line can bring down an entire song-in-progress.  Prior to 1993's In On The Kill Taker, Fugazi had spent two albums steadying their collective hand.  Kill Taker isn't a masterpiece...yet again, "masterpieces" and "geniuses" are awfully lofty concepts.  Befitting the band's DIY ethos, it's a rougher, realer pleasure...a ground-floor glimpse at a group refining their craft.

This is an album borne of work -- dirty, hands-on work.  You half-expect the jewel case to be covered in sweat.  Tracks like "23 Beats Off" twist and shift from stark drumbeats to labyrinthine rhythms.  Desperation and fury are imbued with atypical depth.  For all its howls and shouts, "Rend It" is assembled with architectural precision.  The jerky percussion and spoken-word lulls are sharp and soft angles, bringing structure to the whole.  It's a solidly-built record, and thus a justifiably confident one.  There are missteps, but there's no hesitancy.  Even the mix is crisp and direct.  Some tracks are winners, others losers, but they're all authoritatively so.  Among the intricacies of Kill Taker, you'll find neither happy accidents nor lazy mistakes.

On some levels, Ian MacKaye's a seriously dogmatic dude.  He's idealistic and opinionated, the originator of the straight-edge other words, a big bald blowhard.  As an artist, however, he's fantastically open-minded.  Listening to Kill Taker segue from gentle wordless heartbeat ("Sweet and Low") to sirens and screams ("Cassavetes"), it's apparent that MacKaye discards no musical elements out of hand.  Genre and precedent aren't important.  It's a question of whether each component works within the context of a song.  The brash, bratty "Public Witness Program” is a prime example.  It begins in classic Fugazi fashion.  Treble-heavy guitars skitter across a meaty, undulating bass line.  They're joined by MacKaye's snarl -- half-plaintive, half-pissed.  What makes it fantastic, however, are the cheery handclaps.  They wouldn't be out of place in a Toni Basil video... but they aren’t out of place here.  It's a wonderful, wide-eyed method of making music.  There's stuffiness.  There's self-importance.  And then there's one of hardcore's living legends saying, "You know what?  Screw it.  I'm using the handclaps."

Ambition plus effort does not equal perfection.  Were that the case, every high school basketballer would ascend to the NBA and Kill Taker would be an unqualified classic.  While no superstar (nor "Nevermind"), the album's a solid college player.  Error-prone?  Sure.  Strong, agile and ablaze with love of the game?  Absolutely.  Kill Taker's tracks have a tendency to run long.  MacKaye's vocal stylings don't always complement the material; "Instrument"'s tense march is ill-served by Glenn Danzig Junior.  There's also the matter of Fugazi having been built upon Minor Threat's weaknesses (chiefly humorlessness) as well as strengths.  They're legitimate flaws.  They're also technical fouls.  Hard work's messy.  It's inexact.  In On The Kill Taker is a loud, lively blast of hard work.  It's a joy to behold... mistakes and all.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2008 Julia Skochko and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Dischord, and is used for informational purposes only.