How many lives has punk rock really saved? How many revolutions has it sparked? For those of us who came of age in cramped suburban basements, who worshiped at altars of half-stack amplifiers and were baptized in the sweat and spittle of the Saturday night house show, the answer is probably “fewer than we’d like to admit.” Eventually, all that sound and fury makes way for the wobbly complexities of adulthood, a time when it becomes much easier to pick out the various pitches of tinnitus and admit that nobody is going to save your life but you.
This is not a slight against a scene that continues to shift and grow five decades after its inception. Punk’s greatest accomplishments lie in its visions of the future — a future without cops, without capitalism, hell, even without parents. The best and most important punk albums are the ones that bring this future a little closer, that show us a glimpse of what we can become and leave us with a message coded in the static and tape hiss: Go out and make it happen.
Swedish hardcore band Refused released one of these albums in 1998, just months before calling it quits amidst a miserable North American tour. The Shape of Punk to Come, like London Calling and Repeater before it, pushed against the boundaries of what its creators perceived as a limited scene. Against all odds, the album nearly lives up to its outrageously bold title, a 12-part manifesto of musical egalitarianism that finds room for everything from ambient electronica to an extended stand-up bass solo.
Yet The Shape of Punk to Come was not really the shape of punk to come. It was more of a ship passing in the night, albeit one whose cannons fired with all the force they could muster. It took the better part of a decade for the world to catch up with Refused, and even today one rarely sees a hardcore band as willing to set fire to their own genre’s tentpoles. In Refused Are Fucking Dead — a 2006 documentary directed, strangely enough, by Refused guitarist Kristofer Steen — the band collectively sighs in acknowledgement of their singularity. “We felt that we had reached a higher level,” recounts drummer David Sandström. While that may have been true, this kind of hubris is eventually what did them in.
Now, 17 years after their initial demise, Refused has returned with a new shape of punk that’s just as wild and eclectic as their last. The four-piece reunited for a string of reunion shows in 2012, but Freedom marks their first chance to show us if the future turned out like they’d hoped. The album makes a rousing case that yes, Refused is still as relevant in 2015 as they were in the ‘90s, and no, they don’t particularly care if you think so or not. None other than Taylor Swift producer (!) Shellback co-wrote lead single “Elektra”, which opens the album with a burst of rhythmic hardcore that’s almost straightforward by Refused standards. “Nothing has changed,” screams Dennis Lyxzén over a pummeling drumbeat, but it’s clear that at least something has changed.
While an effective reintroduction to the band, “Elektra” is not entirely indicative of the album that follows. Shellback’s influence seems to have tempered some of the weirdness left over from The Shape of Punk to Come, but when the band is left to their own devices, they become more thrillingly eclectic. “Old Friends / New War”, for example, layers sharp bursts of clean guitars over a hip-hop beat and lets Lyxzén have some fun with a pitch modulator. It’s a combination that shouldn’t work, but the band’s commitment to the experiment overcomes any concerns about questionable taste.
“Françafrique”, meanwhile, succeeds where The Clash’s tone-deaf children’s choir version of “Career Opportunities” failed. It opens with a bunch of kids screaming “Exterminate the brutes!”, which feels pretty goddamn heavy even before the drums and amplifiers kick in. The crescendo of horns in the bridge — and the richly satisfying payoff of Lyxzén screaming “Kill! Kill! Kill!” — rises to the same heights as the locked-in fury of “New Noise”. It’s the best moment on the album and one of the better moments in music this year, period. The fact that it’s embedded within a scathing critique of French colonialism only makes it all the more necessary.
The question of what makes a song “heavy” is central to the context of an album like Freedom. Refused has never been a band to take such a term at face value, and much of Freedom seems like an intellectual exercise aimed at broadening the definition of intensity. An electro-funk beat straight out of Daft Punk’s stable powers “Servants of Death”, which proves that righteous leftist anger can find a home in dance music. From a strictly anthropological perspective, it will be interesting to see Refused pull this one out at a show and observe how the mosh pit adapts. Other tracks find equally backhanded ways to assault the senses, whether via ambient strings (“Useless Europeans”), swinging horns (“War on the Palaces”), or ethereal vocals (“Dawkins Christ”).
All of this is more fun than a politically charged hardcore album has any right to be. Still, one can’t shake the feeling that Freedom lacks the youthful immediacy that made its predecessor a classic. This is a grown-ass record made by four grown-ass dudes whose days of touring in a van and playing packed basement shows likely ended with the last millennium. The chances of Refused saving your life these days are next to nil, but they can still make a hell of a soundtrack for figuring it out on your own.
Essential Tracks: “Françafrique”, “Dawkins Christ”, and “Servants of Death”