*This was originally published on Rhapsody.*
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.