When was the last time you were surprised by a punk-rock record?
Enter Sweden's Refused. Taking the credo of self-destruction to new
heights by breaking up mere moments after the release of their latest
album, The Shape Of Punk To Come, this band is so passionate that
it's almost painful. And so innovative that other bands should be
required to take lessons from them. The most brilliant groups teeter on
the razor wire between unity and chaos, the constant push-pull of
tension keeping everything on edge. Refused toppled right before
many of us had a chance to see them attempt this stuff live (their tour
would have concluded in early November). So the rest of this review must
serve as a R.I.P.(unk)
Part pickled, grizzly Die Kreuzen/Milwaukee basement-core, part Nation
of Ulysses politico-posturization, part Fugazi new
jazz/booty-shakin'/off-but-on machinations, Refused are all about the
three r's: rock, revolution and reading.
Refused put the emphasis on that last "r" in that series. Their album includes: 1.) complete lyrics; 2.) a long description/explanation of the motivations (both political and personal) behind each song, and; 3.) a separate page containing a
snappy list of descriptive words, such as: "Sketch 11: Urbanization,
Spontaneity, Drift, Magic, Resplendence," or "Sketch 8: Inspiration,
Dedication, Motivation, Revolt, Words."
Setting nose-bleed high standards for themselves and the rest of the
world, they rise to the occasion -- as well they better, after including
statements (see number two above) such as "The lack of stimulants within
art, politics and life lowers our standards, which is why we settle for
talk shows and MTV ... The lack of challenging forms of expression and
thoughts of fire and self-confidence gives us a passive and hollow
nature. So reclaim art, take back fine culture for the people, the
working people, the living people, and burn down their art galleries ..."
Listening to this CD a few times will do the same for a listener --
raise standards to the point that alt-rock radio fare, 98 percent of new
punk-rock and the Billboard Top 100 will sound sad and colorless in
A decade ago, when every other punk band was so-called "political,"
perhaps Refused wouldn't have stood out as much as they do now -- a
sole anarchy flag waving over the crowd of peppy skate-skasters,
brutal metal-heads, cut-and-paste electro solo artists, throwbacks and
sweet emo bands, none of whom would be caught dead with lyrics like "I
got a bone to pick with capitalism and a few to break."
Refused sure as hell don't make party music.
Admittedly, Big Political Statements can be wearing (picture a group
of college students embroiled in an all-night coffee-house discussion),
but such commentary works perfectly with this band. Lyrics about class
warfare, the destruction of capitalism and the belief that music can
help to tear it all down lend the band's passionate music and vocals
some political backbone. It just wouldn't be the same if gravel-throated
singer Dennis Lyxzen yowled about girls, coffee and the tour van (not
that there's anything wrong with that).
Powerful lyrics aside, much of the sense that every song is a battle to
the death comes from Jon Brannstrom's fierce guitar playing -- some of
the best committed to 1's and 0's in a long time. Effortlessly sliding
between clean-cut power chords, oddball harmonics, tweaked scales, sheer
noise and deceptively simple, catchy riffs, exploring the sound of
brightness and darkness and everywhere in between, it sounds like a
dozen different players switching off in a tag-team musical
extravaganza. Perhaps this theory is not so far off: the liner notes
credit all three musicians (including bassist Kristofer Steen and
drummer David Sandstrom) with guitar.
Unafraid to alienate their core audience, Refused never stick with one
style for long, segueing from ambient techno ("Bruitist Pome #5") to the
jaw-dropping acid-jazz/punk-metal explosion of "New Noise." The latter
includes a brilliant transition to what sounds like a live performance,
wherein a cheering crowd provides "music" that's as integral to the song
structure as the guitars.
It would be easy for a critic/listener to sit back and make cynical
comments about a band that puts their guts on display and that makes
huge statements about politics, life, work and art. It would be easy to
act jaded and pass this off as a grandly naive (but undeniably rocking)
experiment. Part of this reaction stems from the fact that Refused
expect a lot from their listeners -- you've got to make a bit of an
effort. You've got to listen with headphones, you've got to study the CD
booklet, you've got to take it outside, preferably in a wide-open space
with plenty of room to run sprints and yell at the top of your lungs.
To really hear Refused, you'll need to revert to a time in which you
might have actually believed that an album could inspire a revolution --
or at least a really good design for one.