In this test-marketed age, it's not just potato chip and wine cooler manufacturers who try to anticipate their customers' preferences. Hollywood rewrites the endings of its movies to fit the reactions of advance-screening audiences, TV networks measure the galvanic skin response to their stars, and mainstream rock-and-roll, in alienating parents, teachers and Washington wives, is really only following strict codes of adolescent contrariness.

That's why Fugazi, the Washington quartet that has quietly become one of the country's (and indeed the Western world's) leading underground bands, is so stirring. As punk-rockers will, Fugazi questions the existing order, but its primary challenge is issued directly to the audience for "hard core," the supercharged variant of punk that has, in most of its incarnations, long since degenerated into petty ritual. The band's concerts are an open-ended dialogue, a righteous provocation, a charged moment of activity in an era of passivity.

Fugazi may well be the most exciting live rock band in America today, a status that doesn't guarantee that it makes great records. So far it hasn't, though to say that "Repeater" (Dischord) suffers by comparison with the group's concerts is to hold it to a very high standard. The release, Fugazi's third record and first full-length album, captures much of the band's passion and immediacy: the steel-spring rhythms of drummer Brendan Canty and bassist Joe Lally, the weaving, parrying and intersecting guitars and voices of Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, and the clear-eyed moral vision of its lyrics.

The album's title song uses a fallen drug dealer's matter-of-fact narrative -- "You say I need a job/ I've got my own business/ You want to know what I do?/ None of your {expletive} business" -- to highlight a straightforward anti-drug message: "We don't have to try it and we don't have to buy it." MacKaye, who has battled hard core's inter-clique rivalries since his early-'80s stint with Minor Threat, broadens his critique to include all human history in "Styrofoam": "There are no races to be won/ There are no numbers left to be won/ Everybody's down/ We pulled each other down." Similarly, "Merchandise" expands the band's skepticism of the right haircut or the right T-shirt to all consumption: "Merchandise keeps us in line/ Common sense says it's by design ... You are not what you own."

Amid a twin-guitar gale that rivals the tempest of Glenn Branca's 10-guitar orchestra, these earnest but hard-edged communiques are delivered with steely zeal. Intensity, of course, is not a scarce commodity in hard core circles. But by opening up the sound in the manner of such dub-influenced British post-punks as Gang of Four and the Ruts, the band has provided its guitar firefights and vocal outbursts a more expansive canvas. Having two singers -- and two lyrical personae -- gives the group both philosophical and musical depth, and the way MacKaye's and Picciotto's voices blend on "Repeater" and "Sieve-Fisted Find" is electric. Fugazi is the first hard core band to deserve stereo.

One drawback of Fugazi's recordings is that its short, angular, explosive songs ricochet by too fast. That argues for the CD version of "Repeater," which adds to the 11 songs on the vinyl version three from a recent single, including the throat-grabbing "Song Number One," which looks the punk subculture's pride square in the eye and howls, "It's nothing!"

If this is negation, it's of the Zen variety. Almost alone amid the duplicitous courtiers that pass for rock bands these days, Fugazi is trying to bust things wide open. The band may never succeed permanently, but in those moments when a sudden guitar or vocal retort cleaves the air the sense of possibility is exhilarating.

Ignition: 'The Orafying Mysticle of ... '

A now-dormant quartet that was fronted by Ian MacKaye's younger brother Alec, Ignition nearly matched Fugazi in power. But where the latter detonates, Ignition always seemed on the verge of implosion. The band's apparently final release, the six-song "The Orafying Mysticle of ..." (Dischord), is less obsessive and more direct than its previous work. That makes it a little less distinctive, but doesn't detract from its vigorous sound, in which drummer Dante Ferrando now claims equal status with guitarist Chris Bald. "Standstill," the most striking song here, is also the most characteristically grinding.

The Holy Rollers: 'As Is'

Both song titles such as "Freedom Asking" and the trio's hortatory style illustrate the Holy Rollers' kinship with Fugazi. Yet the Rollers' "As Is" (Dischord), which recycles the four songs from their "Origami Sessions" seven-inch, sometimes goes its own way -- whether with the explicit politics of "Ode to Sabine County" (about a black prisoner beaten to death in a Texas jail), the acid blues of "Dahlia" (which recalls Cream's "Tales of Brave Ulysses") or the agit-folk sing-along of "Johnny Greed" (which starts like the Weavers and ends up like Sonic Youth). Though "As Is" is often likable more for what it intends than what it achieves, such songs as "Machine" are worthy additions to the Dischord canon.

Unrest: 'Kustom Karnal Blaxploitation'

Though its vision is much different from Fugazi's, Unrest shares both that band's taste for severe guitar noise and its quest for self-definition. Main man Mark Robinson redefines Unrest so relentlessly, though, that it's hard to stay with the band through a single album, let alone its entire career. As such titles as "She Makes Me Shake Like a Soul Machine," "Kill Whitey" and "Black Power Dynamo" suggest, "Kustom Karnal Blaxploitation" (Caroline) takes the D.C. band on a semi-ironic funk trip. Robinson also finds room, though, for the madrigal-like "Lord Shiva," the almost hard core "Coming Hot and Proud" and "C. Chelsea Redux," a pseudo-sensitive electric-folkie ballad festooned with samples from an introducing-the-alphabet record. It's a reach that sometimes seems more exhausting than enlightening. Robinson's intelligence is wide-ranging, but it can also be -- as on an arch piece of fake-funk such as "The Foxy Playground" -- off-puttingly brittle.