Refused Are Fucking (Un)dead

[UNLOCKED] bonus 023, 22nd December, 2019

A few weeks ago Austin and I were chatting. I asked him if he had listened to the new Refused album yet, and he told me he was more interested in hearing my thoughts on the album than the album itself. So, here we go.

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I discovered Refused in 1999 after coming across one of their tracks on a punk compilation CD. Those were the days of the early internet, meaning I had just enough time to daydream about possibly seeing my new favourite band tour Australia before going online and realising they had already broken up a year earlier.

Refused formed in Umeå, Sweden in 1991, and for their first few years they played competent but uninspired hardcore. I’ve never been much of a fan of straightforward hardcore – to me it just sounds too samey. Relentlessly fast-paced, with unintelligible screaming vocals, heavily distorted guitar, a flat bass tone, and a repetitive four-four beat. At least with punkrock I could understand the lyrics, appreciate the humour, and sing along, but old-school hardcore didn’t offer me any of that.

In 1998, Refused released The Shape of Punk to Come, an ambitious, exciting, and unique album demonstrating the evolution of the band above and beyond their hardcore roots and into something decidedly post-. Where their previous two albums had been thirty minute distillations of Swedish hardcore, The Shape of Punk to Come was a fifty-five minute post-hardcore epic, with jazz flourishes, flirtations with electro, and other minor sonic experimentations interspersed among tracks of complex drumming, tight, abrasive guitars, and singing-screaming-whipsering-shouting anti-capitalist lyrics peppered with references to 20th Century art and protest.

In the twenty years since I got the album, it has never fallen entirely off rotation. Other albums, other artists, might have temporarily usurped it, but none of them proved to have the same staying power. Partly that’s entirely subjective – the album got its hooks into me at the perfect moment: when I was ready for something more complicated than the punk I’d been consuming, excited by its anti-capitalist message (I still am, though it lacks nuance), and (let’s be honest) proud to be listening to something obscure. But beyond those subjective elements, it’s also an album ahead of its time – somehow vibrant and fresh even after 21 years.

Prior to The Shape of Punk to Come, the band was already beginning to step away from the hardcore scene – less interested in what their existing audience expected from them, and more interested in pushing ahead and creating and expressing, something new. When they hit the road they knew they had moved beyond the punk clubs they had played at previously, but their bookers and audiences had yet to realise that. (Nobody would realise it for 16 years.) They broke up on the road in the US, dejected and depressed. Watching footage from the Refused Are Fucking Dead documentary, you will see a band that just recorded one of the greatest albums of all time playing to what looks like a fucking diner, while middle-aged women sarcastically bang their heads. I would have given up too.

They played their last show in a shitty, overcrowded basement, where their set was interrupted by the police – disrupting the band’s much-needed catharsis and perhaps single-handedly guaranteeing that the band would, one day, reform, if only to extinguish the psychic energy manifested by their final album and their sad demise.

The band members moved on to other things – other bands, solo projects, medical degrees, living life. But The Shape of Punk to Come wasn’t their final release. A month later they released The New Noise Theology EP (the single release for New Noise which included two phenomenal b-side tracks), and in 2001, the rest of the band minus Dennis recorded and released a self-titled album as TEXT – reportedly using elements written for a possible next Refused album that never eventuated. I could write an entire piece on the EP and on TEXT, but this isn’t that piece. There was the aforementioned documentary, and various reissues dripfed to fans throughout the aughts, helping to spread the influence of Refused ever further.

As their profile grew, rumours began to circle of a reunion.

Refused reformed in 2012 – another sign that the world ended in 2012 and we’ve been living in a corrupted simulation ever since (if this is the case, I can only assume the hardware running our simulation is experiencing a whole raft of technical problems as metatime progresses). That year I returned from extensive travels around Europe and the US, purchasing my tickets on a hostel’s shitty wifi, and returning to Australia just in time to see Refused play in Brisbane. It was everything I could have wanted in a Refused live show – everything I’d been waiting thirteen years to see. They played most of The Shape of Punk to Come, as well as crowd favourites from their early albums. I wrecked my voice screaming along to every word, and drowned myself in sweat. The intervening years hadn’t dulled their performance, but their songwriting? To find out about that, we’d have to wait another two years.

2014 saw the release of Freedom, the first new Refused album in sixteen years. Could it compare to The Shape of Punk to Come? It was always going to be an uphill battle, and at moments it comes close, but ultimately it falls short.

In some ways Freedom feels like a paint-by-numbers attempt at recreating the Refused formula (as if one incredible, genre-defying album could constitute a formula). That dynamic interplay between noise and quiet is present, the vocals that vary between singing, screaming and pleading, the battling, thrashing guitars, the sense or pure, justified anger at an unjust system… but ultimately it falls flat. The album sounds over-produced – surely the worst crime possible for a band that had its start in the DIY hardcore scene – which is hardly surprising when the likes of Shellback worked on the album, best known as the multi Grammy winning producer of Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Ariana Grande, and others.

The closest Freedom comes to reaching past heights is with the track Old Friends/New War, though a couple of other tracks might come close but suffer from a lack of imagination when they recycle motifs and even riffs from their earlier work (for instance, compare the opening of 366 with the title track from The Shape of Punk to Come, and you’ll hear an echo across time).

It’s a shame too that the album never quite lands, because lyrically the band had moved beyond the obvious anti-capitalist messages of their early work to explore post-colonialist themes (something that Western culture is only slowly and reluctantly coming to grips with) when they explicitly referenced Conrad’s Heart of Darkness while condemning French colonization of Congo.

In short, Freedom is fine, but if, like me, you wanted a further radical evolution of the band that made The Shape of Punk to Come (and, later, TEXT) you are going to be disappointed.

2019 saw the release of War Music, and more than anything, the album leaves me feeling confused. Like their early albums, it’s a 30-odd minute blast of anti-capitalist anger, but this isn’t a return to the simple hardcore of their early days. There are some great hooks, and certain songs that would spark a moshpit in record time, but the overriding sense of the album is that here is a band dulled by age, success, or both. I Want to Watch the World Burn and Malfire are so radio-friendly this contrarian bastard finds it fucking offensive, and Death in Vannas sounds like Refused’s take on 80s metal.

By the end of the album, we finally arrive at something that makes sense. The two final tracks, The Infamous Left and Economy of Death are the only songs that would actually fit on a projected timeline charting This Just Might be the Truth and Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent to the present day. But even then, it’s as though the band that recorded The Shape of Punk to Come and even Freedom is no longer present – beyond a lazy few seconds of throwback radio noise.

If Freedom at least showed shades of the iconoclastic band that was 1998’s Refused, War Music sounds like Refused as stadium rock. It is still unmistakably Refused – Dennis’ distinctive screaming, Steen’s shredding, Sandstrom’s military precision and brutality on the drums – but it’s all so… obvious. There are no truly new or striking sounds or ideas being explored here, and far too little of the dynamic interplay between quiet and noise that is consistent feature of The Shape of Punk to Come.

Refused predicted their own demise on The Shape of Punk to Come with the track Refused Are Fucking Dead, and the band was memorialised in Steen’s documentary of the same name. I can only suggest then that in their current state, Refused are fucking undead. A shambling zombie of a band. Outwardly they may appear to be the band you know and once fell in love with, but listen closely and you’ll find instead a rotting corpse driven by an alien will. I can’t really blame the band members – this is seemingly the age of pastiche and nostalgia after all, so why not dust off the old black button-up shirts, record some middling albums, and hit the road? But this isn’t my Refused.

I don’t want this zombie of a band. I want the band who created The Shape of Punk to Come, I want the band that recorded Poetry Written in Gasoline, I want some of the experimental oddity and conceptual depth of TEXT’s self-titled album. And more than anything, I want to hear David Sandstrom pushing his drumming into more complex and chaotic places.

Twenty one years later, and I’m waiting for the new noise once again. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it seems as though it’s not going to come from Refused this time.

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Perhaps next time I’ll chart my journey in search for that new noise…