The Refused 2012 reunion tour offered up their final American appearance last night at The Fonda in Hollywood, which means that regardless of the praise that has been given across the board all year for this band, there is not really anyone left to convince. If you had any interest in checking the Swedish hardcore pioneers, the hope is that you did, because the short of it is that despite nearly 15 years of inactivity, Refused reemerged at festivals and medium-sized venues this year as a vital force, putting together concert experiences that have few, if any, equals.
For the average music fan, Refused is probably viewed as another reunion act sold as something that should transcend the audience they captured in their original incarnation, and it’s easy to imagine why it might be a tough sell. Just this year, bands like At The Drive-In, Grandaddy, Quicksand, American Nightmare, Afghan Whigs, Mazzy Star, and fireHOSE all reunited in some respects, most more marketable than ever before, and all provided some level of satisfaction to fans who waited years for the event, even if it lasted just a fleeting few hours. But, that’s the downside to many of these reunions, in that fans are satiated for a moment, often to be left with the realization that they want more. They want the bands to continue in all respects, creating new music that both matches their past achievements, but also matures right along with the aging fan. With Refused, this longing makes even more sense, considering that their music seems more relevant with current trends than ever.
But, early in their set, frontman Dennis Lyxzén made a telling comment, noting that when Refused initially toured the states two decades previously, he had been “an angry young man.” Throughout the set, and really this whole tour, Lyxzén has been quite the opposite of angry. Between songs that hinge on brass, uninhibited emotional release, Lyxzén offered a steady display of smiles. A recent post on the band’s website elaborates on this contradiction. With this in mind, any desire for Refused to record a new album or continue parading these “angry” songs is reconciled by the fact that while the music heard on a reunion might be the same, the people performing it are probably not.
What separates Refused from other reunion acts is their ability to channel their youthful bliss and recklessness, as if punk is something that always lies dormant under their skin, ready to erupt in dramatic fashion when needed. Refused even took this idea to a near literal level. Immediately following an opening set from The Bronx, the traditional between-set house music was absent. Rather, a familiar drone hummed through the venue, and proceeded to slowly build in volume and complexity for the entire half-hour wait. When the lights finally dimmed, the stage revealed a giant black curtain, and as the drone (now recognizable as familiar Refused ambiance from The Shape of Punk to Come) reached its breaking point, lights from behind the curtain gradually brightened, allowing the audience to perceive the band’s name in the curtain in what appeared to be thin fabric that had some transparency.
Through the transparent letters, the figures of the five members could be recognized. The band then started the drum opening of “The Shape of Punk to Come”, and the first verse was performed still behind the black barrier. Finally, in a move of grandeur, the curtain fell dramatically from the rafters to the floor as the song his its first big release. This sort of drama and showmanship aren’t something you would associate with punk, exemplifying the band as one that is still trying to shape the future of their genre, even as they prepare to disband once again. And, hell, it worked like a charm, as the energy in the room jumped so dramatically that the crowd would not come back down to earth for the next 90 minutes.
Now, the phrase “the shape of punk to come” is tightly linked to Refused, and it’s hard not to consider how their music sounds with the ears of 2012. Having The Bronx as opener (or earlier in their tour with acts like Sleigh Bells and OFF!) provides a barometer to see just how Refused have moulded what punk and hardcore have become. Hardcore in particular is arguably healthier in 2012 than ever before, with band’s like Fucked Up, Converge, and Ceremony not only impressing critics, but also allowing an access point into the genre without compromising much of the core aesthetic. While the bands may not have followed all of Refused’s cues, the fire for originality, growth, and integrity has remained lit.
The Bronx may reside a little on the wrong side of the tracks with regards to the originality aspect (unless you count their Mariachi incarnation), but they make up for it in the currency of earnestness. Playing to their hometown of Los Angeles, The Bronx leaned heavily on hometown pride and shoutouts to Refused to punctuate their straight-forward and accommodating brand of hardcore. One search for applause amusingly dedicated a song to “the Dodgers and not the Angels, and to the Lakers and not the Clippers.”
Most of their advantage was the band’s sheer intensity, which even could be described as intimidating, with vocalist Matt Caughthran as comfortable slamming into his fans in the pit as he is shouting to them from the stage. He seemed to perform half the set from the Fonda’s floor, all while hitting his vocal cues with startling ease. A guy who can perform complicated tasks while participating in a circle pit is equally admirable and disconcerting, right? Still, The Bronx not only allowed the audience to accumulate a solid base of sweat for more sweat to later build on, they gave some credence to the influence that so many attribute to Refused.
But, in the thick of a Refused show, with bodies flying over the barricade (side note: great job by The Fonda’s staff by making sure the crowd remained safe while pretty much letting them do whatever they wanted), people climbing tall PA systems and hurling themselves into the sea of hands, water and beer raining down, and a circle pit whose effects could be experienced from any corner of the venue, it’s the most simple and emotionally charged aspects of the band that seem most important. Say what you want about how important Refused is, the other side of the coin is that the long dormant band is undeniable as performers. To a soundtrack that featured all the expected songs from The Shape of Punk to Come (i.e. no “The Apollo Programme Was a Hoax”) and a few older tunes, Lyxzén controlled every eye, ear, and iPhone photo lens in the room, serving up endless tricks in the form of microphone tosses, non-traditional dance moves, jumps ranging from standard to acrobatic, crowd surfing, circle pit singing, and finally, pulling a Morrissey by going shirtless for the shows conclusion.
Nothing was held back for this final impression on America. Lyxzén even let this extend to his interaction with the crowd. He touched on the next day’s presidential election, noting that he doesn’t really have a stake in it, but that in Sweden there is a left and a right to choose from, but in America we have “two Christian conservatives” running against each other. He kindly informed the crowd during the encore break that one of his guitarists was getting sick in the bathroom and would be back in a couple minutes. And, as a uniting rally cry, the show’s final musical burst was preceded by Lyxzén pontificating as if he were addressing a college’s graduating class, advising in sincere generalities akin to “be true to yourself” and “never compromise your views” and “don’t listen to anyone” and “do what you love and never give up” and, well, you get the idea. Sure, the sentiment was there, but the speech wasn’t memorable for what he said, but that he didn’t want to stop saying it, as if he knew that the end of his rant meant having to say goodbye.
Even after the music ended, the band lingered, bowing to the audience, and then lingered a bit for some high fives to the fan. The anger may not be dimished, but the communal joy of being in Refused seems difficult for Lyxzén to abandon. The singer noted earlier that the reunion was originally supposed to be a handful of shows, and they just kept accepting offers to add other cool opportunities. Remaining, the band has a week or so in Australia, followed by a final run in their home region of Scandinavia But, this tour has already cemented the reputation of Refused beyond their genre and beyond their influence. Refused managed to make a reunion that didn’t need to lean on nostalgia and created an impression that hinged on who the band is today, not who they once were. And, that’s pretty cool.
The Shape of Punk to Come
The Refused Party Program
Rather Be Dead
Summerholidays vs. Punkroutine
Hook, Line and Sinker
The Deadly Rhythm
Protest Song ’68
Life Support Addiction
Worms of the Senses / Faculties of the Skull