By Gareth Watkins
“When every expression, no matter how radical it is, can be transformed into a commodity and be bought or sold like cheap soda, how is it then possible that you are going to be able to take ‘art’ seriously?
When every political idea has to become safe and categorized just so that it can be defined by disgusting ‘journalists’ whose only aim is the selling of issues and the cashing in of paychecks, how can we then show the seriousness of the situation?
When the single purpose of every song written is to accumulate capital for the record companies that will only kill every attempt at spontaneity and creativity, how are we then expected to create?”
– ‘Refused Are Fucking Dead’, 1998.
You, the person reading this, likely own The Shape of Punk to Come and your heartbeat still quickens in anticipation of Denis Lyxzén screaming about how he’s going to scream. Freedom isn’t The Shape of Punk to Come, and, to its great detriment, it isn’t the shape of punk to come. It’s a solid hardcore record with some inter-genre flourishes when everybody is making solid hardcore records with some inter-genre flourishes. Freedom sounds like a non-traditional hardcore record from the year 2015 because 17 years ago Refused mapped out everywhere hardcore had to go while still remaining hardcore. They weren’t the first (the owe a major debt to early ‘90s D.C innovators The Nation of Ulysses) but when they said that punk could be anything people listened.
There are going to be people reading this who weren’t alive when Refused released The Shape of Punk to Come, not that it matters. Almost nobody who ‘grew up’ with Refused were really there in ‘98 when ‘Shape dropped, just as almost nobody was listening to Neutral Milk Hotel in the same year they released In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. We all found Refused as a favourite band’s favourite band (it could have been Icarus Line, Jimmy Eat World or even Blink 182). The band’s last show together on their disastrous U.S. tour took place in front of a dozen kids in Harrisonburg, Virginia and was broken up by the police after four songs. They broke up not long after, each of the four members going on to play in other bands, of which singer Denis Lyxzén’s The (International) Noise Conspiracy was the most well known.
They reformed in 2012 for a handful of shows that became, as of time of writing, 82 gigs as part of multiple world tours separated by a short hiatus. Freedom means that they are no longer on a reunion, playing the hits for late-20s, mid-30s and 40-something-year-old fans: they’re a working rock band, and for some people “Elektra” or “Dawkins Christ” will be the first Refused song they’ve ever heard. That probably isn’t a good thing.
Freedom isn’t as ambitious as Shape and the range of genres and styles traversed by the band isn’t nearly as broad. Whereas on its predecessor each part (a techno interlude, a free-jazz freakout) stood as a separate entity, both affirming the essential punk-ness of electronica and jazz and disrupting the stifling homogeneity of punk, on Freedom the elements from outside of simple guitar-bass-drums-screams have been ground up and boiled then added to the mix. Hearing electronic drums and processed vocals in a rock song, as we do on “Old Friends, New Wars,” no longer feels transgressive, partly because of the groundwork Refused themselves laid 17 years ago, so the 21st century listener has to judge Freedom on its own merits. It has some, but this is Refused and coming after a near-perfect record “some” is nowhere near enough.
It starts with a promising riff that is essentially what would have happened if Black Sabbath had written “War Pigs” under the influence of European straight-edge hardcore. “Elektra” is, for the most part, as good as anything on ‘Shape or the previous two Refused releases. It begins with an all-ahead charge before settling in to a groove and deploying a chorus (‘nothing has changed!,’ appropriately). The song was written in collaboration with producer Shellback, who has also worked with (deep breath) Taylor Swift, Maroon Five and P!nk. Now, it isn’t impossible for super-producers to also have punk cred and “Elektra” is one of the album’s better songs, but, at bare minimum, punk bands should write their own material (I eagerly await your emails pointing out, I don’t know, that most of Crass’ Best Before 1984 was written by Michael Bolton.)
The missteps on “Elektra” are all in the background of a solid song, whereas the track following it, “Old Friends/New War” is fundamentally misconceived. Lyxzén’s vocals are processed so that they sound, for want of a better word, blackened. It just sounds silly, and the remainder of the track isn’t much better. “Dawkins Christ” is a return to form and a stab at a certain C3PO-voiced twitter troll is always appreciated. “Francafrique” begins with a choir of children chanting ‘exterminate the brutes,’ a line from Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness, the book that inspired Apocalypse Now, which is sampled on Refused flagship song “New Noise.” The song itself is a strutting, funky jeremiad against colonialism, ‘just another word for genocide’ as a repeated call and response from the song’s closing minute calls it. “War on the Palaces” leads off with a country-fried, almost Stones-sounding riff, then New Orleans horns and phased guitars, but ultimately fails to evolve. Album closer “Useless Europeans” skewers their continent’s comfort and apathy.
The problem with Freedom is freedom. Refused don’t have anything to prove. Musically, they have been defeated by victory. Half of hardcore sounds like Refused. Politically, the past 17 years have seen capitalism prove itself both less effective and more venal than Marx could have ever imagined and yet when the system was at its weakest the Left couldn’t land the killing blow. When their backs were against the wall and they were destroying themselves in mutual acrimony Refused intercut songs with poetry declaring capitalism to be organized crime, here, when they are free to do whatever they like, they work with super-producers.
Freedom of the press allows us to select from a marketplace of ideas; the ideologies that we’re willing to fight and die for; religious freedom lets us find a credo that restricts us in a thousand different, arbitrary ways. Freedom of speech, including artistic freedom, allows us to say the things that we cannot not say. Refused no longer have to create a new kind of punk rock and, much as they may sloganeer to the contrary, they aren’t going to bother capitalism any time soon, so they’re free in all the ways that don’t matter. Some other younger, hungrier, more committed band will come along soon to show us what punk rock is going to do next. Refused can relax.Freedom, Refused