E Pluribus Punkum

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.

When was the last time you were surprised by a punk-rock record?

Thought so.

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

comparison.

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.