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Refused – Freedom

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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.

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

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Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly – ALBUM REVIEW

By David R J Sealey

Sometimes art can be so dense that when you first encounter it, it causes you to recoil in horror and question just what exactly the fuck it was that you just experienced. What the hell just happened? What, exactly, does it want?

With To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar sets his goals right out on front street, just next to that run-down bar with the furniture from the Thirties. He wants nothing short of a jazz revolution; an uprising of wild rhythms, primal funk and lyrical fury. He seethes and rages, scorns and scats, rallying the masses with tales of repression and anti-police rhetoric that feel exceptionally relevant.

On this, his third full record, Lamar lives life in the moment, drawing influences from all corners of hip hop’s history. In turns, he evokes the spectral jazz melodies of Duke Ellington, the big Compton beats of  Dr. Dre, the revivalist R&B of the omnipresent Pharrell Williams, and the crisp modern production of luminaries such as Flying Lotus. To Pimp A Butterfly is a heady cocktail of the old and new; a classic Martini on the rocks, a shot of Hennessy and a lungful of pure funk

First track Wesley’s Theory tells the modern moral tale of Wesley Snipes’ downfall at the hands of the taxman. The mutating, funky production opens the door to the jazz club whilst doffing its cap to Lamar’s previous record good kid, m.A.Ad city before the man himself bursts onto the stage with the incredible For Free? – Interlude. The track sees the rapper duelling a drumkit with incredibly complex lyrical dexterity and a ‘this dick ain’t free’ refrain that shows he still has that wry sense of humour.

Big single King Kunta ebbs and flows with an intentional tribal groove as it effortlessly oozes Michael Jackson parodies, references to the seminal Roots, and subtle lead guitar buried deep in the mix. Institutionalized features Bilal, Anna Wise and Snoop Dogg meandering over a sensational funk-fuelled dreamscape created by producer Rahki. And ‘shit dont change until you get up and wash your ass’, apparently written by Lamar’s grandmother, might just be one of the best choruses of all time. It also might not.

It’s not all plain sailing through the velvet night, however. The problem with travelling blind is that you sometimes get lost and, to be honest, some songs lost me. At 16 tracks, one of which is 12 minutes long, the record is a little flabby. Tracks like These Walls and You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said) are pure blubber. Others, like Complexion (A Zulu Love), are perilously close to retreading familiar lyrical ground, and bring nothing new to the party.

That being said, the album does its level best not to outstay its welcome. As it creeps over the halfway mark, tracks begin to alternate in quality, dashing and raising your hopes again and again; it is end to end. How Much A Dollar Cost is a scathing critique of poverty dressed up in narrative finery, and singles The Blacker the Berry and i are alternately furiously funny and joyously uplifting. The evolving spoken-word pieces woven in between songs add to the sense of an overarching sense of personality, of Kendrick Lamar himself – each song a little piece of his soul.

And not just his soul, but the souls of the many incredibly talented and varied artists that made this record a reality. To Pimp a Butterfly is a modern-day masterpiece; a Bayeaux tapestry of jazz and rap, and the array of names that litter the album credits (Rapsody, the Isley brothers and Pete Rock included) all deserve a big piece of the praise.

To find the future of hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar has travelled deep into the past – the Marty McFly of hip-hop, with Flying Lotus as his Doc Brown.