Older and wiser punk Liam Thomson gives us his thoughts on the return of seminal hardcore Swedes, Refused, and their 2015 release, Freedom.
I was too young to appreciate the ‘chimerical bombination in 12 bursts’ that was Shape of Punk to Come in 1998. I only discovered Refused in 2003, when post-hardcore acts like At the Drive-in, Thursday and the aforementioned Swedish punks were making a resurgence. A second wave of angry, disillusioned young bucks ready to stick the finger at the over-saturation of emo bands concerned with tight jeans and slick hairstyles in the alternative music scene.
My faux-anarchical leaning’s were always more about looking cool than the downfall of capitalism, so Refused immediately ticked one box for me, What gave them staying power, and what still does, is that they were doing what no one else in the scene was doing in ‘98 and the early 2000s. The closest I can really think of was Dillinger Escape Plan, and even they verged more on the side of Converge style thrash than true hardcore. The thing about Shape of Punk to Come was that while it continues to be one of the greatest punk albums of all time, it was wrong. It wasn’t the shape of punk music to come at all. Instead, we’re inflicted with a never-ending tide of bone-crunching, breakdown heavy metalcore hybrid acts. Listening to Shape of Punk to Come never gets boring. It’s message was seminal, it’s sound revolutionary, it’s energy frenetic. Nothing Refused ever did after would never be as good. So they broke up. Refused are fucking dead, as the saying goes and punk never changed.
Nearly 20 years later the older but no less angry Swedes are back to remind the hardcore scene of their legacy, with 2015’s Freedom. What’s sad is that the toddlers that were in their infancy in ’98 have grown up and won’t likely know how important Refused is and was. They will probably never understand why Freedom is what it is, and why it’s different.
Freedom opens in a similar way to Shape of Punk to Come; ‘Elektra’ brims with a simmering energy that’s just on the verge of exploding between each repetition of the chorus. Lead singer Dennis Lyxzen, who must be well into his 40s, hasn’t lost any of his signature chaotic vocal dynamic. He growls “the time has come, there’s no escape”, a foreboding prophecy that Refused are back and just as gnarly as before. ‘Old Friends/New War’ is one of the new release’s most musically diverse tracks. Lyxzen snarls “…still dancing to defective rhymes”, like nothing has changed since his accusatory lyrics in ‘New Noise’ which state“…we dance to all the wrong songs, we enjoy all the wrong moves”.
Refused takes aim at religion in ‘Dawkins Christ’, a rolling track yet repetitive track that’s enough to keep the headbangers satisfied. Lyxzen takes the opportunity to criticise religion’s master-slave dogmatism and profess his love of Nietzsche, announcing that he has the German philosopher’s soul and “praise the lord, god is dead.”
‘Francafrique’ is about exactly what it’s entitled; the French relationship with it’s former African colonies. It is a criticism of how money won out over human life. Lyxzen sings “genocide was Paris’ will”. It opens with the most poppy rhythm of the record, jazzy guitar overlaid with a children’s choir chanting “exterminate the brutes, exterminate all the brutes”. It is the easiest track of the album to bust a move to. Those unfamiliar with the French Congo may be confused as to why Refused are turning their anarchical-socialist guns on this issue.
‘Thought is Blood’ is about as close as Freedom gets to Refused’s 1996 sophomore album, Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent. It has the same thudding, mosh-inducing pace as ‘Hook, Line and Sinker’, but updated. If the backing synth were removed it could easily sit in Refused’s back catalogue. Like much of Freedom, it is more technical and complex than most of the tracks on Songs to Fan… and contains enough difference between the previous and following track to keep listeners engaged. It suffers however from too much repetition within the song itself.
The opening riffs of ‘War on the Palaces’ is almost country rock, before veering off into ska territory with some funky trumpeting leading into Lyxzen’s very Pelle Almqvist-esque vocals (fellow Swedes The Hives). In fact, ‘War on the Palaces’ could be mistaken for a mashup between a Hives and The Bronx tune. It chugs along at the pace of a steam train at full-pelt down a folk/ska/punk railroad spitting venom at political leaders who are willing to send soldiers to their deaths but themselves stay safe in their palaces. The track contains one of my favourite section of lyrics from the album: “You’re just one of them who talk about freedom and progress with a corpse in your mouth. You’ve never tasted the violence that gave us our rights.”
‘Destroy the Man’ has an angry, verging on violent sound tempered by a female choir. The song appears to be calling for an end to a patriarchal society and placing the blame for the world’s problems at male feet. While this assumption might be over-simplified, musically, it swings between circle pit inducing chaos and the band’s experimenting with a more (dare I say) jazzy sound. A line for every feminist to get behind: “Oh, how we love the shackles when we control the chains”.
‘366’ seems to be taking aim at anti-immigration policy. The lyrics force listeners to consider “that’s someone’s sister, that’s someone’s son”. Guitarist Kristofer Steen is mathematical in his delivery, gifting listeners a mix reminiscent of Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) and mature licks for the older punk listeners. This distinctly Refused style continues throughout almost the whole album, from ‘Elektra’ to the second last track ‘Servants of Death’.
Drummer David Sandstrom, who has been with Refused since the beginning, maintains a solid beat through “Servants of Death”, fusing rock beats with an almost 80s disco vibe. Steen provides a very funk guitar overlay while Lyxzen, in true form, spits and snarls until the very last line. ‘Servants of Death’ is the most Rage Against the Machine–esque track on the album; though not quite ‘Bulls on Parade’, it carries itself with similar stylings and enough funk to make it an enjoyable listen.
Freedom ends not with a bang, but with a slow, sinister harmonic that builds but never lands. ‘Useless Europeans’, though the most lyrically targeted of all the tracks, is arguably the weakest. Perhaps it’s a fitting way to end such a frenzied album. Knowing these Swedes, we may never see them again so personally I would have preferred fireworks to a sizzling campfire.
In Freedom Refused break new ground whilst exploring their idiosyncratic classic style While it cannot possibly top the dizzying heights of their 1998 magnum opus, it shatters open the buried coffin of a dormant giant without quite breaking the topsoil. Refused are not fucking dead.
Refused will be touring Australia in 2017 with support from Sick of it All and High Tension. This is a tour NOT to be missed! Grab your tickets here.
Friday 20 January – The Tivoli, Brisbane QLD
Saturday 21 January – Enmore Theatre, Sydney NSW
Sunday 22 January – HQ, Adelaide SA
Tuesday 24 January – Prince Bandroom, Melbourne VIC
Thursday 26 January – Metropolis, Fremantle WA