Source Material: Refused, The Shape of Punk To Come

*This was originally published on Rhapsody.*

Refused, The Shape of Punk to Come

Refused, The Shape of Punk to Come

Refused have come back with a vengeance. It’s been an exciting return not just for fans but maybe even more so for the hardcore Swedes themselves, who, before re-forming in 2012, last performed in 1998 to a crowd of about 40 in a basement in Virginia. That same year, the band released what was thought to be their swan song with their third album, The Shape of Punk to Come — until now, with new album Freedom.

“How can we expect anyone to listen, if we’re using the same old voice/ We need new noise!” Dennis Lyxzén bellows on the screaming manifesto “New Noise.” He ain’t kidding — this is not the punk your parents pogoed to. Sure it’s shrill, sharp and seething, hard, heavy and firmly defiant, but The Shape of Punk to Come bombards with an array of styles your average punk band could not pull off: hardcore punk, avant-metal, prog, jazz, classical, electronic. For Refused, it was not only about making a statement through words (which they do, often, and right from the get-go: “I got a bone to pick with capitalism and a few to break/ Grab us by the throat and shake the life away/ Human life is not commodity, figures, statistics or make-believe”), but also through a rich and varied brew of sounds. Even if you’re not fully on board with the band’s leftist politics and straight-edge lifestyle, you’ve got to at least respect their musicality.

Refused’s biggest influences came straight out of the American hardcore scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s, from the nation’s capital to New York. D.C.’s Nation of Ulysses’ anarcho-aggression and condemnation of everything from sugar addiction to stupid adults to the wussiness of rock ‘n’ roll was an obvious inspiration for the Swedes. (NoU had a song called “The Sound of Jazz to Come” — sound familiar? — and they also threw touches of shrieking jazzy brass into their sound.) More of Refused’s straight-edge and political ideologies can be traced back to seminal bands like Born Against (the title “Refused Are F*cking Dead” sounds a little like “Born Against Are F*ckin’ Dead,” don’t it?), Minor Threat (who coined the term “straight edge”), Gorilla Biscuits (back in February 1992, Refused covered a few of their songs at their first show in Sweden) and metalcore purveyors Earth Crisis and Ink & Dagger (I&D’s guitarist Don Devore even played bass during Refused’s final American tour in 1998).

Refused grew their style around hardcore’s roots, no doubt, but with The Shape of Punk to Come they also further developed that sound with unexpected elements of surprise, like bits of techno frippery, blasts of violin (“Tannhauser/Derrive”), and moody, post-rock riffs reminiscent of Slint. And who’s to say Refused weren’t listening to Radiohead’s OK Computer, released just a year prior? Both albums weave disparate genres, from jazz to electro, into a seamless sound and concept much grander than the sum of its parts.

Pioneers past be not forgotten, too. The album’s title is your first clue, with its reference to Ornette Coleman’s 1959 debut album, The Shape of Jazz to Come, the first major document of avant-garde jazz — something you’ll hear floating around Refused’s music, most notably on tracks like “The Deadly Rhythm,” which also, incidentally, samples another ’50s musical wonder, Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man.” There’s also a nod to beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s controversial 1955 poem “Howl” in the title of opening track “Worms of the Senses/ Faculties of the Skull” (Ginsberg’s words: “where the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses”).

Lyxzén’s own poetry, meanwhile, may have been a bit more harsh, but that doesn’t mean it was any less impactful. “The destruction of everything is the beginning of something new … throw a rock in the machine,” he slyly murmurs on closing track “The Apollo Programme Was a Hoax.” Even though it would eventually lead to a rupture in their own machine, The Shape of Punk to Come was Refused’s rock — and it was a delightfully destructive one.

SPIN Album Reviews

I’ve written album reviews for the longstanding and acclaimed music publication SPIN, both for their (now-deceased) print and online editions. Check ’em:

Savages, Silence Yourself
Published: May 6, 2013

As their band name implies, Savages are imploring us to get in touch not so much with our brains as with our viscera; the quartet itself feels like one living entity, negotiating the interplay of its various parts. Physically, drummer Fay Milton and bassist Ayse Hassan thump manically yet steadily, like a heart that’s just been defibrillated back to life; the emotions are supplied by guitarist Gemma Thompson’s wailing guitar and Beth’s feverish cries, both of them alternately overtaken by utter pain yet hell-bent on inflecting it.

Johnny Marr, The Messenger
Published: February 27, 2013

No conversation about indie rock can go long without paying homage to the Smiths, and more specifically, Johnny Marr. That pristine Rickenbacker jangle, that juxtaposition of upbeat euphoria and dreamy melancholia wrapped in a flowing bow of chords — these sounds will be forever romanticized in youthful memories and Hollywood films, forever attempted by every sad-sack who ever picked up a guitar, if only just to impress a girl or a boy. But no matter how much money (or how little meat) any festival juggernaut offers, the Smiths ain’t getting back together.

Green Day, ¡Tré!
Published: December 13, 2012

¡Uno!, with rambunctious tracks like “Kill the DJ” and “Troublemaker,” was the trio shooting Patron with the kids; ¡Dos!, with its retro garage rock, soundtracked their purchase of a vintage Porsche 911. But ¡Tré! finds them finally facing reality: “Hey, little kid / Did you wake up late one day/ And you’re not so young, but you’re still dumb / And you’re numb to your old glory, but now it’s gone,” Billie Joe Armstrong howls on “X-Kid,” and it’s hard not to think X equals him.

Bloc Party, Four
Published: August 24, 2012

Four is closest in spirit to White Pony, frequently taking a dip in the “Digital Bath” and, with the help of At the Drive-In/Mars Volta producer Alex Newport, reveling in that sort of heavy, brooding, prog-plod precision: It’s the sound of Bloc Party evolving from confused kids to confident brutes ready for the attack.

The Ting Tings, Sounds From Nowheresville
Published: March 27, 2012

And while Nothing may have been somewhat bipolar, this follow-up crosses over to straight-up schizophrenic. Militaristic snare trills, punk-rock guitar, tolling bells, flaccid raps, elegiac strings, squelching synths, horn wails, a squeaky rocking chair, a reggae groove, a song that sounds straight out of Grease — it makes you wonder if Nowheresville is actually a sort of abandoned playground for deranged children.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Published: November 8, 2011

What’s a year without a Gallagher brothers throwdown? Months after Liam and the rest of Oasis unveiled the score-settling Beady Eye, Noel gets in the ring with a sizable advantage (he did write the band’s hits) and a dedication to spreading the love instead of exacerbating the hate. His solo debut is hardly humble, though, from the dramatic strings flooding “Everybody’s on the Run” to the New Orleans brass dancing around the stretched-out vowels of “Dream On” and “The Death of You and Me.” “What a Life” gallops with a grandiosity that recalls Arcade Fire, and “Stop the Clocks” is a full-on orchestral-rock orgy. High Flying Birds isn’t a total knockout, but it should keep Liam sleeping with at least one Beady Eye open.

Future Islands, On the Water
Published: October 11, 2011

Baltimore’s Future Islands obviously were born with their ears pointed eastward to the theatrically heartbroken land of New Order, the Cure, and David Bowie. On this much-improved third album, synths swell, beats throb, and oceanic drones creep. Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner wafts through like a specter on “The Great Fire,” but Sam Herring is the true phantom of this synth-pop opera, still gruffly howling like he’s been forced to gargle rocks in the name of love — a subject that devastatingly plagues him — but also willing to settle into the grooves, even conceding that “it just takes time.”

Album Reviews, 2013

A few reviews, as appears on Rhapsody

Phoenix, Bankrupt!
imageFollowing breakout Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the Frenchmen turn Japanese (at least on lead track “Entertainment,” which slightly recalls The Vapors’ ’80s hit) and then remind us how French they really are with a song about a men’s fragrance (“Drakkar Noir”). On Bankrupt!, Phoenix maintain that signature mix of fizzy and dreamy electro-pop that titillates as innocuously as a cold soda on a hot day. But this time they sound more on par with brethren Daft Punk: synths packed in tight and injected with caffeine, like on the early-Madonna-esque “Trying to Be Cool” and the sprawling title track.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mosquito
imageOn the YYYs’ fourth album, Karen O sucks your blood, imagines she’s an alien, dreams of being buried alive, and gets caught without her MetroCard. And like a lonely night in the NYC she sings of on the train-track-thumping “Subway,” Mosquito feels dark, menacing and claustrophobic, but never lacking in around-the-corner suspense. The guitar squall of “Sacrilege” swoops up a gospel choir, “Under the Earth” floats on a dub groove, and “Buried Alive” gets Gorillaz-esque with help from Dr. Octagon and producer James Murphy. But dawn nears towards album’s end with a trio of sweet, sizzling ballads.

Youth Lagoon, Wondrous Bughouse
imageYouth Lagoon’s Trevor Powers is becoming a true prince of oddball solipsistic pop. Building much upon the minimalist sounds of 2011’s The Year of Hibernation, his second album dives into a chaotic world that we can only guess reflects an anxious, possibly tripping-out brain (“The devil tries to take my mind,” he coolly notes on “Mute”). Wondrous Bughouse wobbles in reverb as synths spiral around dizzyingly like a carousel flying off its axle. Every sound feels weightless, yet the overall texture is impenetrable, creating a hypnotic effect like My Bloody Valentine, at a carnival, under the sea.

Wavves, Afraid of Heights
image Wavves’ fourth album sounds like the ultimate alt-rock triad of 1994: Weezer, Green Day, Nirvana. Nathan Williams even works a gravelly Cobain snarl on “Dog” and “Demon to Lean On,” where the guitar apes “Lithium” and Williams talks of holding a gun to his head. Other statements: “We’ll all die alone, just the way we live/ In a grave”; “None of you will ever understand me.” Williams has a great sense of melody, sprinkling in surf touches too (those Beach Boy woos), but his music stays mostly loose and loud to mirror whatever’s going on in that tortured brain. Maybe he should lay off the weed?

Blue Hawaii, Untogether
imageThe Aloha State really should give this Montreal duo a cut: After taking in Blue Hawaii’s serene tropical pop, you’ll want to book a flight there stat, if only to have Untogether, their debut album, as your accompanying soundtrack. Lounge-y drum machine beats plop throughout, like droplets of water hitting sizzling skin; acoustic guitar gently punctuates gorgeous tracks like “Try to Be”; and synths flutter in and out like the sun playing peek-a-boo through the palm trees. Vocalist Raph Standell-Preston (also of Braids) guides it all along with hypnotic purrs as pure and sweet as sugar cane.

Foxygen, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic
imageLike retro psych-pop bands Tame Impala, Ariel Pink and MGMT, the music of Foxygen feels as cozily familiar as a pen pal from an exotic land you’ll never visit. The duo’s second album opens like Sgt. Pepper in a pub and ends like Abbey Road in a windstorm; “No Destruction” hints of The Velvet Underground; “Shuggie” emulates Bowie; and, generally, singer Sam France has Mick Jagger’s snarl down. To fit the vintage palette, there’s talk of pot, doors of consciousness and San Francisco, but perhaps the best, most timeless line is, “There’s no need to be an *sshole/ You’re not in Brooklyn anymore.”

SXSW 2013

I covered the sounds, sights, and smells of SXSW this year (my 7th and likely final year attending!) for Rhapsody. Here were my half-dazed thoughts:

TEEN, Consequence of Sound Party, SXSW 2013

TEEN, Consequence of Sound Party, SXSW 2013

March 14, 2013

Here to prove you don’t need no stinkin’ badge, I came upon my first show at this year’s SXSW purely by chance as I strolled by Waterloo Records. Catching a whiff of some sweet-sounding, atonal sludge, I thought, “Wow, these guys sound like Nirvana!” I darted inside to find Chelsea Light Moving, Thurston Moore‘s newest musical pursuit. Ah, yes. That would make a whole lotta sense, wouldn’t it? Practically the whole ’90s has Sonic Youth to thank. Moore, 54, remains in fighting shape, offering up a tribute to hometown heroes Roky Erickson and The 13th Floor Elevators, and protest songs like “Groovy & Linda” and “Lip,” with his hair draping over slightly wearied eyes, his stance stoic save a pair of frantic guitar-wielding limbs. A young girl next to me exclaimed, “This band is making me sleepy,” and as if in retort Moore repeatedly began to scream “Too f*ckin’ bad!” I’m glad he said it before I had to.

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Rhapsody Indie Week

I helped spearhead this indie music extravaganza for Rhapsody, in preparation for the great juggernaut that is SXSW. It features 30+ articles (with help from a few freelancers).

The specific posts I created for Rhapsody Indie Week are listed below. Click on each to check out the full article + playlist + album reviews. And listen to some music while you’re at it!

*The Evolution (and Dissolution) of Indie
My thoughts on the state of indie music, more specifically my attempts to figure out exactly what “indie” means.

*Source Material: Radiohead, Kid A
A comprehensive dissection of Radiohead’s 2000 magnum opus via its influences, from Aphex Twin to Miles Davis.

*My Bloody Valentine, Loveless: Descendants
A deep dive into the wide-reaching influence of this seminal 1991 album.

*Indie’s Biggest Badasses
A list of the genre’s smartest, boldest, most positively resolute don’t-f*ckin’-mess-with-them-or-their-craft artists… Featuring Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey, Karen O and more.

*Cheat Sheet: Britpop
Future Anglophiles, this here is just a mere introduction to the great alternative music that came out of the U.K. at the end of the 20th century… Featuring Blur, Oasis, Suede and more.

*Senior Year, 1987-88: College Rock Cool
Celebrating the true cool kids of the mid-to-late ’80s, those who were listening to stuff that would influence a whole new generation of left-of-the-dial pursuers. No cassette deck necessary.

*Top 25 Indie Albums of 2012
My picks for the best of 2012, from Grimes to Santigold to Japandroids to Alt-J.

*The State of Punk 2012
From Canada to Sweden to London to Brooklyn to Cleveland to NorCal to SoCal, those who prefer their sonics shrill and their lyrics snarled were gifted a wealth of new noise to split ears (and probably some brain cells) to.

*Radio: ’00s Indie
Introducing my handmade radio station full of indie hotshots and underground faves.

*Source Material: Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights
Celebrating the album’s 10th anniversary with a look at its influences: “Like a rich and well-versed study of post-punk’s most daring and innovative pioneers, the album helped kick start the genre’s revival.”

*Oh, and there’s lots more! Find the rest below under the main link:

21st-Century Psychedelia
Label Spotlight: Sub Pop Records, The Early Years
Label Spotlight: Sub Pop Records, The ’00s & Beyond
Senior Year, 2002: Electroclash Raverz
The Modern Goth Chick
Radio: Indie Now
Cheat Sheet: Post-Rock
Source Material: Beck, Odelay
Senior Year, 2006-’07: Animal Bands
Radio: ’90s Alternative
Cheat Sheet: Merge Records
Cheat Sheet: Matador Records