REFUSED: Poetry Written In Gasoline
A retrospective look into the scene shaping work of the seminal Swedish band
In 1998 a Swedish hardcore band called Refused released their third and what was to prove their final studio album The Shape of Punk to Come. Despite being lavished with praise amongst circles in the punk underground, the album largely slipped unnoticed, underneath the radar of the mainstream music press at a time when the nu-metal behemoth was beginning its ominous rise, and was dismissed on the underground scene by some purists for straying too far from the strict hardcore rulebook. After close to seven years of increasing inner tension and ideological conflict, after touring the album the band called it quits. The music world barely batted an eye-lid at the announcement.
Fast-forward to 2005 and Refused songs are played every weekend in rock clubs the length and breadth of the country, The Shape of Punk to Come' is widely heralded as one of the most important punk-rock albums ever recorded. A veritable who's who of rock music today are lining up to name drop them; from stadium giants Metallica, Foo Fighters and Sum 41, to the UK's very own Muse, Hell Is For Heroes and the recently departed Million Dead, who even named themselves after a Refused lyric. It seems everybody who is anybody is going out of their way to pay tribute to the band.
2004 saw their old record label Burning Heart re-release three of their albums and soon their long delayed retrospective DVD Refused are F*cking Dead will be upon us. So now is as good a time as any to scrape away all the bullshit and mythmaking that surrounds the band, look at the legacy they left us and examine what's exactly happened in the last seven years to lift a group of disbanded far-left leaning Swedes from relative obscurity to being one of the most influential bands on modern rock music.
Refused, 'Coup d´Etat'
Refused, 'Crusader of Hopelessness'
Listening back to these tracks today, one of the most interesting and significant aspects of their evolution at this time is the shift in lyrical content, with Lyxzén abandoning more personal themes and moving towards the political. From seething anti-capitalist rhetoric to venomous tirades on social oppression, it's territory that in time would come to define the band to many, and open the minds of many a young person around the globe.
With the finally settled line up of David Sandström, Dennis Lyxzén, Kristofer Steen and Jon Brännström, 1996's Songs to Fan The Flames of Discontent was where Refused fully began to craft their own distinctive sound, and in turn, to catch the attention of punk, hardcore and metal fans across the UK and mainland Europe. Many consider the album to be Refused's year zero, given it was the first time the "classic" line up had written together, with David Sandström himself admitting that the group almost consider this as their first album.
In late 2005 we're swamped week in, week out with identikit hardcore bands blatantly pillaging the latter day Refused sound, using the album as a blueprint to success. So it's a testament to its quality that despite its many imitators, nine years on from its initial release Songs to Fan The Flames of Discontent still sounds like such a remarkable, pure and vital album. Undoubtedly Refused's most aggressive and metallic material, it's the sound of protest music at its very fiercest.
Refused, 'Worms of the Senses'
After a heavy bout of touring, the band became increasingly frustrated and tired of the insular thinking and hypocritical actions of the punk scene. In late 1997 Refused decamped for eight months with the now renowned producers Pelle Henricsson and Eskil Lövström, to begin working on what was to become their definitive release.
"We made this album wanting to challenge people's preconceptions of what a Punk band could be and what it could play, because Punk is the most conservative musical form there is. Even in Hardcore, there are so many rules about what is and what is not acceptable, and that completely negates the whole spirit of the original idea." Dennis Lyxzén, Refused.
The fact that the inlay sleeve of The Shape of Punk to Come contained an introductory essay attempting to explain their evolution should go some way to illustrating the full extent to which the band so daringly overhauled their sound. Explosive opening track 'Worms of the Senses/Faculties of the Skull' sums up everything that's both stunning and yet utterly bewildering about the album. Mixing spoken word, hardcore, traffic and radio samples, electronica and techno; on paper these components appear to make a complete mess, but in reality when it's pumping out of your speakers at full volume, it works magnificently, augmenting as many ideas into one song as many bands manage in their entire career.
Every one of following 11 tracks are equally spectacular, all offering something totally unique from the others, each a piece that complete the overall jigsaw. Similar in one sense to Radiohead's opus OK Computer, what are stunning tracks individually combine and sound even more compelling when heard in their full context. From the freefall jazz drop outs of 'The Deadly Rhythm' to the quiet / loud floorfilling perfection of 'New Noise' to the string soaked 'Tannhäuser/Derivé', the eight minute long eastern-tinged soundtrack to the most epic Ang Lee movie never made. Very few bands have attempted to utterly smash boundaries as Refused did and as a result The Shape of Punk to Come genuinely stands out as one of the 1990's most pioneering and challenging records. Quite simply, in a genre that is constantly evolving and re-inventing itself, The Shape of Punk to Come has no equals.
Refused, 'Rather Be Dead'
Inner tensions were perpetually hinted at, especially within the inlay of The Shape of Punk to Come and in the midst of a seven week US tour, the band cancelled the remaining shows and announced their split. To this day the band members have rejected all the offers to speak to "disgusting journalists whose only aim is the selling of issues and the cashing in of paychecks", having reportedly turning down the cover in Alternative Press (The biggest rock magazine in the US) last year, and have gone on to in all intents and purposes, disown their swansong release.
Officially their last statement claims that Refused broke up because of their disgust of how music is always categorised, dumbed down and turned into commodity, going on to claim that with four separate projects they would be able to reach more people than one single entity ever could. Of course such a statement was always going to raise a few eyebrows, and in this day and age, where internet messageboard help spread rumours around the world at the click of a mouse button, the reasons behind their demise certainly didn't avoid speculation. From certain band members having difficulty keeping up the with increasingly complex nature of the music to a widening void in their political philosophies; no stone was left unturned by people wildly speculating from the safe faceless anonymity that the internet provides. Certainly the fact that, without their lead singer, Sandström, Steen and Brännström went on to release an extremely experimental album together under the moniker of TEXT, comprised of post The Shape of Punk to Come material before disbanding completely, certainly does little to quell these rumours.
Today David Sandström is a key member of The Facer and also works on solo material; Kristofer Steen has been heavily involved over the last couple of years in the development of the aforementioned DVD; Jon Brännström is working on a project called Jon F Kennedy; meanwhile Dennis Lyxzén greatly divides fans opinions by fronting the decidedly more commercial sounding garage-punks The (International) Noise Conspiracy and has also released a trio of solo albums under the guise of The Lost Patrol, renamed The Lost Patrol Band earlier this year.
There's no denying the fact that Refused have undoubtedly become something they'd always have hated, a seminal band much like Fugazi, who due to their fabled ethics and sub-cultural significance have become a credible name to drop by musicians, lazy journalists and scensters. As they so eloquently in their final press statement, "When people are being praised as geniuses and idols just because they play music... We will never play together again and we will never try to glorify or celebrate what was. All that we have to say has been said in our music/manifestos/lyrics and if that is not enough you are not likely to get it anyway." Elaborating at the end of the statement that they would no longer give interviews "...So that we will no longer be tortured with memories of a time gone by and the mythmaking that single-minded and incompetent journalism offers us."
Even though other great acts like Botch, Husker Du, Drive Like Jehu and Far have similarly gone on to receive substantially more critical acclaim, and not to mention, commercial recognition since their demise, Refused's rise to prominence is something else, on several grounds. While it's been proven time and time again that it's difficult, if not impossible to be sufficiently subjective about an album when it has only been released relatively recently (just take a look at every music poll the great British public are ever responsible in voting for) but with The Shape Of Punk To Come Refused made an album much like The Beatles and Nirvana were famed for producing; an album that will continue to be discovered by younger and younger fans as time goes by. Music is seldom if ever truly timeless but there's the simple undeniable fact that at the time of its release The Shape Of Punk To Come was a criminally overlooked record. Now, at a time when hardcore has never been so synonymous with the mainstream, it's able to reach so many more people than it ever could at the time of it release. With image driven bands like Atreyu, Avenged Sevenfold and Eighteen Visions taking both their running mascara and the rather loosely attached tag of hardcore to a new MTV generation, a fresh audience has emerged, eager to follow the latest in musical fashion.
One final reason as to why Refused stand out is the rather simple fact that they appeared to split, somewhat unusually in the music world, at their artistic peak. It could be argued that along with the likes of At The Drive-In, Jeff Buckley and Nirvana, they ended at the very top of their game (though the latter two for much more tragic reasons altogether). While other acts such as Metallica continue to grind out albums, tarnishing their once great legend in the process, these acts never got the opportunity to disappoint fans by playing past their musical "best before date" or releasing a disappointing record.
Refused, 'Summer Holidays vs. Punk Routine'
Whatever the reasons behind the upsurge in popularity and regardless of the recent bandwagon jumping by some in the mainstream press, Refused still remain one of the most important and influential acts of the past decade. So if you're into punk, hardcore or simply alternative music in general, but are new to the band, take a few minutes to follow the links below such as to the Burning Heart Records site and listen to clips and watch videos and get your own opinion, bearing one thing in mind. As Refused and every other important punk-rock band have always been eager to extol above all else, just think for yourself.