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.

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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.”