Fourteen years ago, Refused made an album that they called The Shape of Punk to Come. But it wasn’t. The album was complex and challenging, full of sounds that had rarely been incorporated into punk rock (electronic and drum-and-bass elements! Jazz breakdowns! Ambient soundscapes!) while also maintaining a dedication to pop songwriting that made the album seem both light-years ahead of its time and entirely accessible to listeners who don’t give a shit about sophistication and just want to scream along with a chorus. It was fundamentally still punk -- just a glimpse of what that might mean at its best.
"The thesis of 'The Shape of Punk to Come' – outlined clearly throughout the record – is that punk rock, if it were to remain threatening and potent, couldn’t keep sounding like punk rock. "
When you title your album The Shape of Punk to Come, you’re throwing down a gauntlet. But the punk bands that followed Refused’s 1998 breakthrough rarely seemed interested in picking it up. While the '00s produced a handful of forward-thinking punk bands, the majority of artists who’ve flown the flag of punk rock -- playing the Warped Tour, signing to labels like Fueled by Ramen, and otherwise doing things that reach the audience of teenagers that punk bands need -- have not been among them.
Every year since 2009, Fearless Records has put out a compilation called Punk Goes Pop that features punk bands covering the radio hits of today. And what’s most noteworthy about the series is that it’s more or less impossible to tell the two apart. Attack Attack! offer a heavily neutered take on “I Kissed A Girl;” Australian pop-punkers Tonight Alive’s take on “Little Lion Man” make Mumford and Sons sound like GG Allin; The Ready Set’s version of “Airplanes” by B.o.B. and Paramore’s Haley Williams is just a prettier take on a song that already blends radio pop and what passes for punk.
And that’s a blend that Williams and Paramore have built their career on. On the closing track of the band’s second album, 2007’s Riot!, the chant-a-long hooks fade into Williams’ voice borrowing the chorus of The Shape of Punk to Come’s “Liberation Frequency,” singing “We want the airwaves back.” But Paramore -- and the bands that came up alongside them -- didn’t exactly hurt for airtime. The '00s saw the Paramores, Fall Out Boys, and New Found Glorys of the world make a killing by taking punk’s tempos and stripping the music of anything that might be threatening.
"A bunch of punk bands have covered “New Noise,” but few of them actually made any. "
The thesis of The Shape of Punk to Come -- outlined clearly throughout the record -- is that punk rock, if it were to remain threatening and potent, couldn’t keep sounding like punk rock. (“How can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice?”) Which is why the band invested so much in bringing new sounds -- the jazz horns at the beginning of “The Deadly Rhythm,” that song’s upright bass solo, the atmospheric instrumental “Bruitist Pome #5,” the proto-dubstep that pops up in “The Refused Party Program” and “Refused Are Fuckin’ Dead,” the strings at the beginning and the melodica solo at the end of the eight-minute “Tannhäuser / Derivè” – into the form. It was never about turning punk rock into something that it’s not. The Shape of Punk to Come is still every bit as aggressive as anything Black Flag or the Bad Brains recorded, as conscious and engaged as Crass or the Clash at their best. But those aren’t the things that the bands that followed Refused picked up on.
While most reunions of long-dormant bands are nostalgia-fueled trips down memory lane, the return of Refused actually feels important. So many punk bands -- even ones who, like Paramore, were obviously influenced by The Shape of Punk to Come -- took the band’s lessons in the wrong way. They picked up on the priceless hooks of songs like “Liberation Frequency” and “New Noise,” but ignored the possibilities that would come from evolving the sound. A bunch of punk bands have covered “New Noise,” but few of them actually made any.
Refused have to see some irony in the fact that they titled their signature album The Shape of Punk to Come, and fourteen years later, we’re only seeing it take that shape because they’ve reunited -- it’s almost like they predicted this. But this is as well-timed as a reunion can be. There’s a strong urge to see punk rock become dangerous again -- to stand in solidarity with Pussy Riot or to keep bands like Rage Against The Machine out of the hands of people like Paul Ryan -- and here is Refused. Fourteen years ago, they drew up a blueprint for how to do exactly that. The bands that followed them weren’t interested at the time, but this is a second chance. The Shape of Punk to Come wasn’t the shape of punk to come, but it still might be.
The Refused are on tour now. The Shape of Punk to Come was reissued by Epitaph in 2010. Watch the album trailer below: