The band that changed punk rock or the ultimate sell outs. Refused are a lot of things to a lot of people, but very few can deny the power of The Shape of Punk To Come. The album which was thought to be their last was released before the band imploded in a basement in Virginia. Afterwards they declared they would never play music together again. But times change and people grow and seventeen years later they are back and not just playing shows, but releasing a whole new album, Freedom.
First things first, this is not The Shape of Punk to Come vol 2. Not even close. While that record is sprawling and complex, this is a much more stripped back Refused. It’s ten tracks that have very little fat on them and at times take some obvious influence from pop. In fact they even had Shellback, who has previously worked with Taylor Swift, come in and take part in some of the writing. Tracks like ‘Francafrique’ have pop choruses, while ‘War on the Palaces’ starts with a rock and roll guitar and features horns in its own upbeat chorus.
That doesn’t mean Refused have changed too much though. ‘Elektra’ kicks things off and has that frantic, anxious energy that makes their music sound so fresh and exciting. While those aforementioned songs are hardly about puppies and rainbows. ‘Francafrique’, a word used to describe France’s relationship with its former colonies, contains children chanting ‘exterminate the brutes’ and the lyrics ‘just another word for genocide.’ Refused may be getting accused of selling out, but their political conscience is still there. In ‘Elektra’ Dennis Lyxzen roars that ‘nothing has changed’ and in many ways that is true.
However, in other ways it is completely wrong and Refused being the band that created this sound and walked away causes some issues. If this album had come two years after The Shape of Punk to Come, it would have made perfect sense. It was the next natural step on their path. This long after, we’ve heard all of this now, a hell of a lot of times before. Hundreds of bands have taken Refused’s sound and made that next step, they’ve gone from sounding like the future to being rooted in the present and that does kind of hurt them.
Yet it is really not fair to expect a band to rewrite the rule book twice in a career. The number of bands who have done that is minimal and Refused still do this stuff damn well. Lyzken is easily the star of the show. He switches from screamed vocals to groove filled melody on tracks like ‘Servants of Death’ and it is through him that nearly all of Refused’s emotion comes pouring out. Something that comes to a head on melancholic closer ‘Useless Europeans’. However he is not alone. Refused are one hell of a musical proposition and that shines through on this album.
Odds are Refused aren’t going to change your opinion of them with Freedom. If you hate their comeback and what it stands for, then you will continue to do so. You’ll point at this being them covering old ground and stripping it back to a poppier format in order to get success. However, if you’re on board with Refused in 2015 then it will give you what you want. It has all the ferocity that brought them to the game to begin with and yet it shows them growing up and maturing. For me it proves that Refused are not only still going as an active band in 2015, but one still as important and relevant as before.