Review Summary: Refused aren't dead, and neither is their ethos.
Time can be just as much of a curse as a blessing if you’re a seminal artist. On one hand, you’ve got the comfort of seeing your genius lauded more and more with each passing season; your music slowly turning into more than just music. On the other, there’s the very real fear that any new material will be unfairly measured against the same lofty yardstick which saw you attain seminal status in the first place. With every passing year since a landmark album the weight of expectation only gets heavier, and the natural instinct for many would be to finish on top, to avoid the possibility of damaging your legacy and losing the mystique that surrounds bands that leave with a classic trailing in their wake. It’s difficult to imagine any band taking such a risk after almost two decades of resting on their laurels, but for a band like Refused that boldly claimed and delivered on their promise to shape the world of punk back in 1998? Now that takes a special kind of fortitude.
When the Swedes revealed in 2012 that they weren’t in fact, ‘***in’ dead,’ nobody could’ve expected more than the obligatory tour to cash out on their belated popularity, and who could blame them? Playing to 50 people in a basement in the 90’s did little to put porridge on the table, so when the world eventually woke up to their brilliance they decided that it might be nice to dine out for a change. One thing which not even Dennis Lyxzen expected however was that they’d end up recording a new album. Whist it’s incredible that Freedom
exists at all; it’s also true that Refused have never humoured the same trivial concerns which might hamper you or me. The Swedes have always been more inclined to piss you off than to please you, and brilliantly, their attitude hasn’t changed one iota over the past two decades. “*** what people expect of us” indeed.
Early alarm bells tolled when it was announced that 2 tracks were being produced and co written by pop mainstay Shellback. Giving him his due, both “Elektra” and “336” fit in seamlessly with the rest of Freedom
. They’re slick, polished, and contagious, but they also fail to leave more than a fleeting impression. On “Elektra,” Lyxzen furiously spits that “nothing has changed,” and while that may be true in regards to the targets of his vitriol, stylistically the polar opposite is true. Rather than the 7 minute “super weird” adventure which “Elektra” started as, we’re greeted by an accessible, Foo Fighters inspired romp instead. Digesting the song after its ungratifying conclusion, I know I can’t be the only one wishing that the 7 minute version had made it to the album instead. Its choice as the album opener and as one of the lead singles is telling though, it was a clear statement of intent, and nobody can accuse Refused of obscuring their hand. Using a producer so renowned for pop was risky, it practically handed fans a stick to beat them with. But in truth, plenty of people expecting The Shape of Punk to Come II
had more than enough ammo already.
While it would be easy to discard Freedom
after only one listen and declare their legacy tainted, there’s plenty of experimentation and depth to the record if you’re willing to indulge it. The schizophrenic shifts and tangents which filled The Shape of Punk to Come
may have been toned down, but the band’s penchant for experimentation remains unchanged. “Old Friends/New War” is carried by a recycled acoustic riff which grounds the song and provides captivating juxtaposition with the screamed vocals, patchy electronics, and heavy, intermittent drumming. “Francafrique” is brilliant and wacky in equal measure, with an initially cringeworthy child’s choir joined by an angular riff, before eventually descending into yells of “Kill, kill kill!” It shouldn’t work, and yet the song’s disparate elements seem to slot neatly into place with repeated listens. It’s hard to imagine most bands pulling this off, but then most bands aren’t Refused, and like a magic eye puzzle the egregious elements eventually come together. Elsewhere, the ambitious album closer “Useless Europeans” injects a welcome change of pace afforded by its extended runtime, and demonstrates a surprising amount of restraint for a band known for their sudden shifts into bedlam.
Unfortunately though, Freedom
takes a few too many missteps. “Thought Is Blood” is let down by the dull repetition of its uninspired lyrics, “Destroy the Man” is peppered with irritating “oohs” throughout which add little to the song’s atmosphere, and the aforementioned Shellback duo, whilst certainly not bad, don’t do enough to lodge themselves in your memory once they’ve finished.
Refused were ahead of the curve 17 years ago, and while I can’t say beyond reasonable doubt that the Scandinavians aren’t 17 years ahead of us again, the odds of the same band delivering the same belated brilliance twice are slim. Although Freedom
isn’t the return fans were hoping for, there’s enough experimentation here to at least remind old fans of what made them adore the band in the first place. Despite its shortcomings, the fact that Refused were brave enough to deliver brand new material despite their legacy is reason enough to be lauded.