“That's where the business is right now - in the live market. And they're [promoters and agents are] the ones that decide all this shit. So whatever is going to happen - whether they tell us directly or in an indirect way because they feel like they have to manipulate us - they're the ones who know… We're interested in anything that's going to earn us a fair wage. It's not to say it's not about art, but we made that art fucking twenty years ago. So forget the fucking goddamn art. This ain't about the art anymore. I did the arty farty part. Now it's time to talk about the money.” - The Quietus, interview with Black Francis of the Pixies (2010)
“Like lost children we live our unfinished adventures.” - The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord (1967)
“Rather be forgotten / Than remembered for… giving in!” - "Summerholiday vs. Punkroutine", The Shape of Punk to Come, Refused (1998)
Exploding with inspiration and a ferocious spirit, Refused formed in the early 90’s in Umea, Sweden. Their music paid tribute to independent American hardcore punk defined by labels like Revelation and Victory Records and bands like Earth Crisis and Snapcase. They spent the 90’s releasing mosh worthy EP’s and albums – largely derivative of their influences.
However, their 1998 album The Shape of Punk to Come (Burning Heart Records) was a creative epoch. On it, the band brought musical complexity, dexterity and artistic ambition to punk, interpolating a number of musical genres, all the while remaining committed to an uncompromising disruptiveness. Unusual time signatures, electronic flourishes, jazz samples, giant guitar riffs, an unshakable anti-capitalist fervor, a vision for the future, suits and ties.
Whereas on earlier albums they sounded like an ESL Sick of it All, on The Shape of Punk to Come, they sounded like virtuosos coping with the banality of genre convention through inspired re-invention. With nuanced production, it sounded as good as a punk album could sound. Equal praise is due to the duo Eskil Lovstrom and Pelle Henricsson, the production auteurs who provided the atmosphere for the group to go as far as they did musically and the sonic palette to make the songs sound as sharp as possible.
From the relentless explosive guitars of “The Deadly Rhythm” to the drum n' bass breakdown of "Faculties of the Skull/Worms of the Senses" to the somber post rock meets hardcore of “Tannhäuser/Derivè”, it was an album that was fearless in its execution.
Even in spite of its goofily arrogant conceit/presumption of the direction punk should take, The Shape of Punk to Come raised the stakes and arguably has yet to be topped in its genre - both sonically and ideologically. With lyrical content like “I got a bone to pick with capitalism, and a few to break” (“Worms of the Senses”), “I breathe in, I create, awoke the spirit of ‘68” (“Protest Song ’68”), and “We need new noise, real art for the real people” (“New Noise”), they had enough Situationist-inspired politics to back up the confrontational nature of the music.
The Nation of Ulysses “The Shape of Jazz to Come”, an acknowledged influence on Refused.
Guy Debord's 1973 film adaptation of his seminal text "The Society of the Spectacle", an acknowledged influence on Refused.
Born Against “Born Against are Fucking Dead”, an acknowledge influence on Refused.
7 months after the album’s release, Refused unceremoniously broke up after the cops shut down their performance at a DIY house show in Virginia while on tour for The Shape of Punk to Come. Communication breakdowns, exhaustive touring commitments, a singer at odds with his bandmates, all while promoting a classic album yet to be discovered: the rock and roll cliché.
Singer Dennis Lyxzén went on to explore a kind of Debord-ian pastiche through the band The (International) Noise Conspiracy, playing a gimmicky garage rock a la The Hives, receiving production and A&R from Rick Rubin. The other members forged on experimenting with the band TEXT. All of them adamantly stating that Refused would never return. In fact, Refused are fucking dead had become their calling card, synonymous with their brand. As if the shape of punk to come was too radical to keep the band together.
In 2012, with the reunion tour circuit on full tilt, Refused were hired to play the main stage at Coachella for a one-time only performance (as were their contemporaries At The Drive-In who share a similar legacy). There they sounded powerful and relevant, on-stage they looked stark and serious. World tour dates followed. They even played the late night television circuit, as if to bask in the success they missed during their breakup. Then silence.
They denied that they were working on new material, which seemed both like an unbelievable missed opportunity and also a relief. Until early 2015, when new social media accounts and cryptic messaging signaled that the reunion was real.
“We will continue to, at every attempt, overthrow the class system, burn museums and to strangle the great lie that we call culture. We will continue with new projects and forces to do everything that is in our power to overthrow the capitalist structure that alienates us from every aspect of life and living, smash the reification that forces us to dress in outdated identities and rules: we will continue to demand revolution here and now, and not in some vague future that all reactionary leftist fundamentalists and reformists are talking about. We want every day and every action to be a manifestation of love, joy, confusion and revolt…
…we will never play together again and we will never try to glorify or celebrate what was. All that we have to say has been said here or in our music/manifestos/lyrics and if that is not enough you are not likely to get it anyway.”
- Refused’s final communiqué, Official Website, 2000
Rolling Stone: As far as your motivations for reuniting, some of your more idealistic fans initially wrote it off as nothing more than a cash grab.
Dennis Lyxzén: Well, first of all, there's something quite... flattering, I guess, about the fact that people are that invested in our band at all. But it's the same thing with people that say you shouldn't get back together, that it's wrong. Then it's "Oh, they're getting back together? They should at least put out a new record." Then someone else says, "They're putting out a new record? That's bullshit!" People project onto us what they want us to be and what they want us to represent. But at the end of the day, we are the band. We have to make our own decisions. And I think that I would never get back together in a band just for the money. That would be a very strange thing to do. That being said, my entire life, I've been broke. So sure, after playing music for 20-plus years it's nice to not have to worry about paying my rent next month. I don't see it as a contradiction in terms to be a political bands that plays music that has meaning, and also be able to make a living out of it. So for me it's not that big of an issue, really.
Refused’s new album Freedom (Epitaph Records) is currently available for streaming, downloading and for purchase in a multitude of luxury packages. All it took was a fan backstage to tell them how bad of an idea it was to work on new songs. Perhaps it was the challenge that all artists with similar histories face, the challenge of defining (then re-defining) their personal myth. Or maybe it was the dollar signs in their eyes, or the confidence bestowed on them from the largest audiences they’ve ever played to. In a statement accompanying the album announcement a few months ago, drummer David Sandström said that, "Nobody wanted us to fuck with the image of the band who makes a great album and splits up. Nobody wanted us to dilute it. That actually provoked us."
Freedom is a mix of old fashioned political vitriol, hoaky mid-tempo riffing and an awkwardly placed pop sheen. It is now clear that the shape of punk to come, was a conversation that started and ended with that album, that died when they died. Gone is the wild rhythmic experimentation of Shape. Although Freedom still incorporates shades of their aggressive past, it also features hints of a streamlined, 4/4 pop; a lazy execution of a punk ethos, and insipidly contrarian in its attempt to be bold. “Elektra” the lead single, and “366” are collaborations with Shellback – a Swedish songwriter, producer and former headbanger responsible for Top 40 hits like Taylor Swift’s “We’re are Never Ever Getting Back Together”.
It’s not that the music on Freedom is always ineffective, or that it’s that way for not being enough like Shape. It’s the old tired cliché of a band neutered by their own historical legacy. Take the intro guitar part of “Dawkins Christ” which copies the intro to “New Noise”, or “366” which knowingly duplicates the polyrhythmic riffing and groove of “The Shape of Punk to Come”, or the introduction of “Useless Europeans” which borrows the looming crowd cheers and pulsing bass from the introduction of “Rather Be Dead”.
“Dawkins Christ” has the familiar tension and release of their best work, and sonically comes closest to honoring their legacy. But when “Françafrique” kicks in, with its Tom Morello-esque guitar riff and cheap funk/soul shout-choruses, it becomes downright musically confusing. Wasn't this the band that wanted to airwaves back? It’s catchy but feels like a ploy for the young and the mall bound. This is especially clear when you get to “Servants of Death” which has one of the more unabashedly corny guitar lines you’ll hear in 2015, with a forced pre-chorus that feels like the Red Hot Chili Peppers (or Nile Rodgers to be generous). Unlike the work of current tourmates Faith No More who have a similar legacy of making ambitious and forward thinking rock for a cult fanbase, Refused doesn’t have the slightest clue of what they look like to the listener, of how droll they come across screaming about what now feel like eclipsed gasoline dreams. On “Elektra”, Lyxzén shouts (shrewdly) that, “Nothing has changed”.
Not every loved band that missed their shot should reunite and make a record. Not every reunited band should make a record that sounds like the days of yore, nor should every reunited band be predictable and make a go for it in as big a way as possible, especially when politics and ideology are so entwined with their style and genre. Now more than ever, the need to differentiate sincere artistry from the wryness of a nostalgia market is of essence not just for music culture but creativity in general. Artists should be able to express themselves no matter how long their hiatuses might be, or how punk or conservatively they want to re-interpret their legacies. In fact, even thinking critically about this album shows that there is a kind of tyranny of what happens to a group after they make a classic album, and for that matter, the tyranny of criticism for its follow up release.
There’s also an argument to be made for détournement, disguising progressive political philosophies in digestible, self-aware formats to reach the largest populations. There’s also an argument to made for letting sleeping dogs lie. In the face of technology, the festival circuit, corporate money cannibalizing your tastes to look hip, brands bankrolling artistic activity, and the ease with which material can be shared online as quickly as it can be forgotten, the music business remains indistinguishably enmeshed in its cultural bi-product. Now more than ever a band could stand for something bigger than itself, in favor of unimagined futures, while pushing the musical envelope. In ’98, Lyxzén sang about unions on the production line on “The Deadly Rhythm” and in the band's final press release, likened their internal struggles to that of exploited laborers. On “Dawkins Christ” he’s singing about the futility of belief. From Marxism to Nihilism. Listening to Freedom reminds us what the new noise should look, feel and sound like.
Refused press photos courtesy of Burning Heart Records and Epitaph Records.