Review Summary: New art for the real people
Few acts to this day have put their best foot forward as fully and completely as Refused on The Shape of Punk to Come
. In one 12-song collection, these ambitious Swedes were able to distill their well-worn revolutionary message into a brew that felt at once refreshing and visceral in a deeply personal way - as if the songs came straight from the listener’s own subconscious, simmering just beneath the surface and ready to come forward if the listener had only been as bold as the masterminds behind the album. And they were masterminds. For Shape of Punk
’s raw intensity disguised a secret weapon: a conscious eclecticism and determination to upend the norms of a genre whose sound had become worn out and castrated by mainstream homogenization. The result was a work that drew inspiration equally from classic punk and jazz, film and counterculture poetry… was it really so surprising that the result sounded so wide-ranging in scope? The only question the band could answer after releasing such a defining statement was how to possibly top it.
Their answer, of course, was to not even bother. The story of the band’s quick demise and subsequent immortalization feels like legend, and is one of the more improbable rises to fame in the already improbable canon of punk. You just don’t fuck with a legacy like that. Except that’s exactly what Refused decided to do on their 2012 reunion tour, and finally on Freedom
, an album that at once embraces the group’s iconic status and refuses to be constrained by it whatsoever. Nearly two decades removed from their last work, the group has at once nothing and everything to prove. They already accomplished more than most acts will in a lifetime on a single album, so new material could be at best a reinvigoration, and at worst a small blemish on a legacy already long secure. However, with so little past music to their name, their future as a viable large-scale act largely depends on proving that Refused still have something to say in 2015, and haven’t become the exact kind of apathetic slaves to the system they rallied against before.
Thankfully, the one thing Freedom
cannot be accused of is playing it safe. Opener “Elektra” is a sucker punch of raw energy and anti-establishment messages that feels like Refused never left, with frontman Dennis Lyxzen screaming of how “nothing has changed”. However, Lyxzen’s gruffer tone and the more prog-leaning instrumentation are the first sign that changes are indeed in store. This is accentuated dramatically on “Old Friends/New War”, as a vocoder effect intones menacingly through acoustic guitar strumming and a simple backbeat. When Lyxzen sings “I’m all out of appeals now/I’m just going to scream now” in a soft, soothing inflection, it feels right at home with the screams that follow. It is a testament to the band’s enduring commitment to eclecticism and sonic diversity that many such moments of contrast throughout the album feel natural and even occasionally thrilling. The horn sections on “Francafrique” and “War on the Palaces” add a dynamic canvas to each track’s respective classic rock inspired riffage, and “Servants of Death” is a political sermon delivered over a straight-up funk beat in shockingly effective fashion.
However, the record’s appropriation of a wider variety of genres occasionally leads to clumsy and glaring missteps, most notably the children’s choir awkwardly chanting away “exterminate the brutes” on the intro to “Francafrique”. Small moments of bad taste like these are spread throughout the 10-track runtime, and the record is simply too inconsistent to live up to its full potential. That being said, there is something noble in Freedom
’s particular brand of overreach, particularly coming from a band that could have phoned in a record full of watered-down “New Noise” knockoffs and probably made a lot of people happy. Nobody could’ve blamed a band that never found a substantial fanbase before their breakup for catering to their adoring festival crowds by giving them exactly
what they wanted, in the form of a safe imitation of former glory. Instead, they gave the world a challenging, diverse record that spans several genres while always feeling like the same band. Just as they did before, Refused will live and die on their own terms, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.