Refused – Freedom
By David R J Sealey
17 years is a long time in the music industry. We’ve been through the girl/boy band era and third-wave ska, through the techno-filth of nu-metal, journeyed through garage and R & B and indie and a whole lot more between 1998 and 2015. But here we are, a little way into the 21st century, spoilt for choice and surrounded by tiny screens and, against all odds, Refused are back from the fucking dead.
The cult figures, the untouchables, the punk rock doyen that took two records to warm up for their seminal, bombastic masterpiece “The Shape of Punk to Come” and then split, declaring they had nothing left to give have decided, after all, that they have something left in the tank. And Freedom is its name.
2012 saw the band reunite for a tour to great critical acclaim, but to some disdain from the more hardcore amongst their following that had deified their absence as the true embodiment of the spirit of punk rock. Some worried that their heroes had sold out for a quick buck or two, trailing their greatest hits around the nostalgia circuit like Chas and Dave or Billy Idol. But after a two year hiatus, Refused have returned with ten new tracks issued by Epitaph Records that will challenge even their most devoted fans, burying that ghastly notion beneath six feet of solid rock.
Album opener Elektra opens with a buzz-saw riff that evokes the spirit of The Shape of Punk to Come before a muted verse from Denis Lyxzen erupts into a heavier chorus that asserts “nothing has changed, the time has come, there’s no escape”, perhaps echoing the bands feelings about the inevitability of the new record. Refused have always leant lyrically towards socio-political commentary and their frustration at the perceived lack of global progress has added fuel to the fire in their bellies. Or perhaps they are just saying what they are expected to say.
Old Friends/New War is where things really start to get weird. It judders along, at times sounding like a forgotten 1980s radio-friendly pop track with some heavier elements. It is, honestly, pretty forgettable. Dawkin’s Christ makes things interesting again, melding the classic Refused sound with riffs and an aesthetic that somehow evokes Black Flag jamming with Isis.
Francafrique is the point where the record becomes genuinely interesting. A swaggering, upbeat lead guitar riff from Kristofer Steen that wouldn’t sound that out of place in an Arctic Monkeys tune duels Lyxzen’s vocals for superiority, backed by classic rock-style percussion and (seriously) a children’s choir. The chorus seems initially rather weak, but as the song evolves it becomes clear that the mid-paced gang vocals are designed to add dynamism to the latter half of the track, layering textures of swelling horns and buzzing guitars to build to quite the crescendo.
Thought is Blood plods through the first minute or two, a bit of a comedown after the progressive bombast of Francafrique, before the track bares its teeth and tears itself apart mid-way through, fusing improbable elements of doom, The Smiths and visceral hardcore to completely erase the so-so intro. Then the horns re-emerge for War on the Palaces which somehow merges punk rock with The Cure before Destroy the Man takes rather childish lyrics and a classic Refused delivery and combines it with odd, pop-influenced “ooh ooh” backing vocals.
Uber-producer Shellback handles production duties on two tracks here but they don’t really stand out from the crowd. The second of these, 366, could have appeared on any Refused album to date and plays things pretty straight, sounding fresher because of its relative simplicity. This is followed by Servants of Death, a mid-paced melodic number that is a little jarring but plenty groovy if unremarkable, sounding a little like a Red Hot Chili Peppers remix. Album closer Useless Europeans starts off like a Bonobo track with Lyxzen singing/droning over the production in the vein of Morrisey and meanders pointlessly for around six and a half minutes and is about as good as that sounds written down…
With The Shape of Punk to Come, Refused mashed together disparate influences to create a cohesive whole and Freedom is a natural continuation, taking the last 17 years of popular music and condensing it, satirising it and at the same time revelling in it. At times it is borderline genius, but those peaks do not come often enough and the album peters out with a whimper. That being said, their previous Ornette Coleman-channelling magnum opus took a little while to really make an impact and Freedom may well turn out to be the same. Have Refused given us another glimpse of the future or are they struggling to recapture past glories? Only time will tell.