REFUSED - FREEDOM (EPITAPH)
Refused's greatest achievement isn’t The Shape of Punk to Come. It isn’t stretching the boundaries of hardcore by mixing in jazz, electronica and spoken word. It isn’t even making a gleeful WOOOO! an acceptable vocal inclusion within a furious protest song. Nope. Their greatest achievement is giving people what they didn’t know they wanted.
No one really gave a shit about Refused when they broke up. The band didn’t give a shit in return, either. Their fantastically bitter press release upon their demise proved that point fairly conclusively.
Imagine being in a band and believing in it so wholeheartedly that you were prepared to sacrifice every relationship you had in order that your message remain undiluted. Then imagine going to tour the resulting record and being met with indifference. Not hate or abuse (although there was some of that) but indifference. There’s footage on YouTube of a 1998 gig in Ireland, and there’s a guy in the venue who is actually asleep. Yeah, I’d be fairly bitter as well.
That’s why we don’t get to dictate what their new record should sound like. Please stop with the Refused Are Fucking Dead to me jibes, too. They’re literally 17 years old.
After the split, The Shape of Punk to Come sat in confident silence while the world moved onto nu-metal.
We chose nu-metal over the gauntlet thrown down by Refused. Let that sink in for a sec.
I discovered them just too late – having been obsessed with the Handsome record for most of 1998, someone suggested that I give Refused a go. But they added a caveat: Don’t bother with their new album, though, it’s bollocks. But when I went to the record shop later that day, that album was all they had. The guy behind the counter said that they hadn’t sold many copies.
I devoured the booklet on the bus home, completely enthralled and confused by every word. The sleepless midnight punk romance story on the back, the statement that this manifesto is very much for real, the fact that one of them was playing an upright bass in the picture. Behind hung a picture of John Coltrane. It was supposed to be punk, but another picture showed a guy in a Fred Perry jumper. I had no idea what to make of it. I was only 16, after all.
Then I got home and put the album on.
I’ve never been so confused by a record. I couldn’t say that I liked any of it, save for the we want the airwaves back bit that I thought sounded a bit like the Manic Street Preachers. It was muddled, chaotic and it hurt my head. It had cost me about 13 quid, though, so I was already too invested in it to get rid of it. The guy in the music shop said no one was buying it, anyway, so I wouldn’t make any money back.
Suddenly bits of the LP broke free of the rest. I’d rather be forgotten than remembered for giving in. That wonderful accompanying riff. We dance to all the wrong songs. The devastating closing sequence. It creeps up on you until you can’t believe you ever thought it was anything but brilliant. And it is, from beginning to end. It’s so good.
So this new record? Yeah, I didn’t want it, especially after Jon Brännström left / was fired. Nothing they said or played could possibly mean as much to me as The Shape of Punk to Come. Didn't see the point of it.
'Elektra' wasn't much of a convincer, either. Initially it's identifiably Refused, which is great. However, Dennis Lyxzén's new half-sing-half-scream sounds like those moments during Foo Fighters gigs when Dave Grohl abandons the nice melody he wrote for <insert classic Foos song here> and replaces it with HERE WE GO... WRRRRAAAAAAHHHHH." The Colour and the Shape of Punk to Come. It's not pleasant. David Sandström's drumming is marvellous, as it always is, and repeated listens finally help to dull the impact of Lyxzén's Grohl-isms to the point where the song is mildly enjoyable.
I'll calm it with the superlatives soon, I promise.
Regardless of whether I wanted it, the album was coming. I heard 'Francafrique' and half of 'Dawkins Christ,' was very confused and had written the LP off as a disjointed mess. Basically, I was 16 again. I couldn't even bring myself to pre-order the ridiculous deluxe edition, and I'm a sucker for that shit.
Everything surrounding Freedom has been designed to subvert expectation. The title, the production choices, the instrumentation, the subject matter, the atmosphere, the running time, the interviews, the live shows. Refused belongs to Refused alone. Once that's in your mind, you begin to open up to the new record.
From here, the ideas solidify into something concrete. The jazz interludes that horrified the punk kids last time around have been replaced with funk. Seriously. It's The Shape of Funk to Come (sorry), once again deeply unfashionable in its assimilation of antiquated tropes for punk and hardcore implementation. Hearing Lyxzén scream over funk-rock riffs and bleeping sequencers is alternately hilarious and inspired. 'Thought is Blood' has a weaving synth melody that evades identification for a while. Suddenly, it arrives: it's fucking Lenny Kravitz. I've not read any of the reviews for this record yet, but I imagine that it's pissed a lot of people off.
Listen closely, though, and there are links to the past everywhere. Those kids chanting exterminate all the brutes are lent greater power when you remember that line comes from Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and that the central sample in 'New Noise' comes from Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. '366' and 'Thought is Blood' also hark back to '98, battering you with unexpected blasts of distortion and melody in equal measure. Just listen to the drum roll intro on 'Dawkins Christ.' It's not a concession, but an acknowledgement that you have to remember where you came from in order to take a step forward.
And a step forward this is. That doesn't mean it's better than their previous LP (it's not), but there's no way that anyone in the band or the audience should have accepted a facsimile of 1998. 'Old Friends / New War' and closer 'Useless Europeans' make acoustic guitars their foundation. The vocals are pitchshifted, chanted, syncopated, screamed and sung. Along with the funk, there are stadium rock shapes being thrown all over the shop.
Refused's insistence that punk can incorporate any genre of music ever made is exactly how aspirational musicians should be when they approach their new album. I'd rather be forgotten than remembered for giving in, remember? It doesn't always work (I still can't fully get on board with 'War on the Palaces' and 'Destroy the Man' is ruined by its title alone) but it always sounds sincere. As a side note, I don't think there's a vocalist whose shriek of YEAH! is more enjoyable to hear. I thought that I didn't want this record, but in actuality I didn't know what I wanted from this record. And that's exactly what Refused provided. Again.