Refused’s seminal work, 1998’s ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come’, is still as crucial as ever twenty years on.
Amongst the bustling street sounds of the opening to ‘Worms Of The Senses/Faculties of the Skull‘, you hear Refused frontman Dennis Lyxzén utter: “They told me that the classics never go out of style, but they do, they do. Somehow, baby, I never thought that we do too.” Which is the interesting thing about 1998’s ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come‘ nowadays. As it’s a sound that’s not in-style for punk, rock or hardcore. However, its importance on said musical landscapes cannot be understated, as while it’s a classic release that went out of fashion, that was perfectly fitting for a unique, subversive and important record such as this.
Recently, it’s somewhat become in-vogue for small pockets of fans to label 1994’s debut ‘This Just Might Be… The Truth‘ or 1996’s sophomore ‘Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent‘, as supposedly, laughably, the superior records to this watershed release. (Because who doesn’t love contrarians?) While those two records, and even 2015’s strong-yet-far-too-quickly-hated comeback effort ‘Freedom‘ are solid releases, they aren’t the best nor most crucial Refused LP. That crown will forever be held by ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come‘; an eclectic, well-dressed and defiant protest for all things beautiful during such ugly times.
The sub-heading of this fiery, experimental and influential album – A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts – is exactly what you get. Twelve different musical feats that showed these four Swedish men didn’t give a flying fornication if people thought they were “cool” or “hardcore” or not. For amongst their DIY, anarcho-punk ethos and heavier hardcore sections shun through nuance, meta-ideas, love for other genres, and cultured tastes. Because Refused saw a genuine protest in so much more than just loud, distorted guitars and frenzied screaming. As such, across ‘Shape…‘, you receive spoken-word statements and a galore of literary, political and historical lyricism. There are live tracks, movie samples and even some 20th-century musical quotations. Then there are those techno/house parts, the jazz influences, as well as flourishes of strings and acoustic guitar come the album’s last two songs. There’s just so much going on in this record!
Artists like Ink & Dagger and The Nation Of Ulysses were also doing similarly bold thing at the time, yes. Both of which were key influencers upon the minds of Refused themselves. But here’s the thing: Refused just did it the very best, to the sheer point that people still talk about this album with deep love two decades later. Yet this was a deftly ambitious record that was too much for even Refused as a band. As it was only posthumously that this grand record had its genius recognized; receiving countless accolades years after the band disbanded mere weeks on from its release during an America tour. Having their then last show go down in someone’s sweaty basement, only to be broken up by local police right before they could finish ‘Rather Be Dead‘. Twas almost fitting, as we all know what they say about a light that burns twice as bright.
“Human life is not commodity, fake statistics or make-believe”
It’s all so ironic, too. As Refused were so heavily influenced by music, culture, history and art, that in their hefty public display of affection for such things, they created an album that inspired countless others to do the same years after the fact. Refused’s influence is simultaneously obviously wide and also surprisingly massive. To the point where you can see the musical and political hallmarks of their work in The (International) Noise Conspiracy; a great act formed following Refused’s demise.
For without them blending hardcore punk with samples, EQ filters, and drum-and-bass, we might never have gotten Enter Shikari. This album’s recording and production style (which holds up so fucking well even now) can be seen with how Hell Is For Heroes approached their early recordings. On the DVD edition of 2010’s ‘The Fire‘, Senses Fail frontman James “Buddy” Neilsen expresses his wish and love to at least play one show with Refused. Their explosive songwriting and passionate live performances were a clear as day influencer for the approach of Letlive. (who also used to cover ‘The Deadly Rythm‘). Million Dead’s fantastic debut, ‘A Song To Ruin‘, wouldn’t exist in its original lyrical and thematic form without Refused’s influence. The cover of Dead American’s newest EP is a direct homage to this album’s very cover. Crazy Town even covered ‘New Noise‘, and while it’s the worst cover you’ll ever hear, the fact that an American hard-rock/nu-metal band was (terribly) covering such a track speaks volumes. La Dispute and their frontman Jordan Dreyer were also driven in the early days by this defining record too. And for Christ’s sake, even on Paramore’s ‘Born For This‘ (the last song of 2007’s ‘Riot!‘), you can hear guitarist Josh Farro singing in the background, “we want the airwaves back“; a since confirmed ode to the hook of Refused’s ‘Liberation Frequency‘.
The list just goes on and on. This band’s music invaded the senses and skulls of so many artists to follow, from the underground to the mainstream. Very few artists can say that they have had their work do even half of that.
“We could be dangerous/Art as a real threat”
As for the songs, ‘Worms of the Senses/Faculties of the Skull‘ – a title taken from Allen Ginsberg’s lengthy-as-shit poem, Howl – has got to be one of the best opening songs of any record in all of punk and hardcore. And from this amazing start, it’s all golden.
I almost cannot express just how stellar the sequencing and pacing of this record is, but I’ll try. It’s how right before the relaxed strumming, calm drums and papery, high-register singing of ‘Liberation Frequency‘ kick in, that we hear a brief radio swell. Almost as if the listener has finally cut through the bullshit of DJ radio stations and found the “correct” tuning. It’s how that sample of Bob Garrity introducing an ‘A Night In Tunisia‘ performance by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Candido Camero from 1954 transitions ‘Liberation Frequency‘ right over to ‘The Deadly Rhythm‘. Then it’s how ‘The Deadly Rhythm‘ itself begins by splicing in jazz just before the band’s hardcore tendencies explode with full destructive force. This whole album was meticulously crafted to be experienced as a singular entity. Which is exactly why it works so well!
Just like how Tony Williams, Max Roach, and some of the all-time great jazz drummers utilise their ride cymbal to carry a song’s energy and momentum forward, David Sandström does exactly that. Especially on ‘The Deadly Rhythm‘, where he slips in different time signatures and punchy snare work to brilliantly guide the piece onward. David, easily one of punk’s best drummers, does it across the whole record, in fact. Using his ride bell to anchor his own playing; controlling both Dennis‘ raging screams and primal shouts of “yeah!“, as well as Jon Brännström’s thrashing staccato-driven, super-charged guitars. You can hear this all over ‘New Noise‘, ‘The Deadly Rhythm‘, and ‘Worms Of The Senses‘, just to name a few. The quartet’s energetic and thoughtful performances overall are just stellar; even now, they’re still definitive and damned passionate.
The irony-filled, self-fulling prophecy of this band’s impact can even be found in a song like ‘Refused Are Fucking Dead‘, a reference to Born Against’s ‘Born Against Are Fucking Dead‘, who had a huge influence on Refused’s heavier side. The song is an aggro hip-shaker for artsy hardcore types who just wanted any kind of platform to express themselves. A description that’s wholly indicative of the mindset for the wider LP: the underground finding it’s own voice and space to create something new and interesting. Even more ironic is the catchy punk-jam’Summerholidays vs. Punkroutine‘, in which, alongside the track’s hummable guitar melody, the vocal hook states: “rather be forgotten than remembered for giving in“. For this is exactly what happened to the band, funnily enough; burning out rather than fading away. Making the band a household name across punk annals by being remembered for their own sudden implosion due to this album’s high-achieving yet stressful creation process.
“We dance to all the wrong songs“
While embedding myself into this album lately with its 20th anniversary, I’ve once again fallen in love with its production, dynamics and headroom. Every instrument and element is just so well-balanced in the mix. For instance, ‘Liberation Frequency‘ and ‘“Protest Song ’68”‘ (which verbatim quotes Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer) both feature these really quiet passages of soft vocals, restrained drumming in terms of intensity, and with the guitars backed-off on in distortion. Moments that soon erupt like a volcano of molten, anarchistic unrest as the four members kick things into high-gear. In both songs, when the band suddenly launches from these calmer moments into raging hardcore storms, it blows you right off your goddamn seat. Peeling the skin right off the top of your skull in the caustic process.
Another song where this effect is also apparent is ‘Tannhäuser / Derivè‘. This lengthy composition plays out like an opera, spanning multiple movements and brandishes violin and upright bass over massive tom hits and dire guitars. (It even thematically references Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ because of course it bloody does). The gipsy violin that starts and ends ‘Tannäuser/Derivè‘ from Torbjörn Näsbom, along with Jakob Munck’s thick upright bass playing adds a brand new dynamic to the record. You sure weren’t getting songs like this from many other hardcore and punk records back in the 1990s. These parts also create some stunning jumping-off points for Refused to launch into chaotic, noisy contortions of blazing screams and heated riffs. One great example of this is the pizzicato violin part half-way through that soon begets yet another explosive, throttling hardcore movement.
“So where do we go from here?”
There’s even some subtle tambourine (courtesy of one Pelle Henricsson, who also helped track and engineer the album along with the band) sprinkled across the tracklisting. Then you have the eerie, folky acoustic album closer, ‘The Apollo Programme Was A Hoax‘; a song that is unlike anything else on this record. This final piece of the puzzle also feels and sounds like a whole new band with a whole new mood. Dennis’s radio-filtered vocals cutting in through the sparse acoustic guitar and strings that still wonderfully haunt my dreams even to this day. Seriously, off-putting doesn’t even begin to cover what this track is. A song that was almost like a final ‘fuck you’ to anyone who thought that a punk band couldn’t resist “the man” without razor-sharp guitars and gritty yelling. This is Refused’s opened-mindedness showing, as well as their disgust for simply towing a line of what people and fans expected from bands such as themselves.
Of course, as for the legendary ‘New Noise‘, what can I possibly say here that hasn’t been said a million times before? This is THE defining Refused song, It’s a track that surpassed them, this album, and their genre in more ways than anyone could ever count. You can even hear this track in Criminal Minds, Crank, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, season one of The Following, as well as ads for 2016’s DOOM and on the soundtrack for Tony Hawk’s Underground. This was their song; a track that is never not performed live by the group. This untouchable cut was simply an attempt for the band to create new noise to drown out the old. A new beat for the new romantics; a great frame for an even greater painting.
“There is no prestige in your title”
Twenty fucking years on and this record still feels as crucial as ever. It still feels new, daring, relevant and even dangerous. And you just cannot say that about most albums two decades on from their initial release. ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come‘ will forever sonically and thematically sound great; it’s a once in a lifetime album. Of course, while art and punk rock never quite became quite the “weapon” that Refused hopefully envisioned they would grow to be at the time in ’98, this was/is a gripping weaponization of counter-culture. A powerful record aiming to take total control of the mainstream airwaves; a musical manifesto full of such levelling conviction that it, for quite some time, destroyed the creator themselves. Hell, it’s why so many fans, critics and artists still talk about this record so goddamn lovingly and seriously to this very day.
Personally, ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come‘ changed my life. It still blows my mind to this day. Namely in how it fully altered my perception of not only what hardcore, punk and rock music could be – the limitations that could be broken – but what artists could do with the right kind of ambition, heart and experimentation. I first heard this record when I was 16, off the back of the 2010 re-issue that saw the original album get bundled with a live CD from the band’s 1998 Umea Open set and their doco, Refused Are Fucking Dead. At the time, I only ever cared about hardcore, punk, rock and metal; only caring for music that was loud, pissed-off, distorted and violent. I didn’t know much about house/electronica, jazz, funk, or other forms of music. And quite frankly, I didn’t want to know about ’em. I only wanted raw power in musical form and rarely ever anything showing a kind of vulnerable, dynamic or experimental quality. Thankfully, this record completely destroyed these narrow, myopic thought processes I once held about music. If I were to self-analyze for a quick second, perhaps my deep admiration for this LP is why I gravitate towards these kinds of creations and artists now as an adult and as a critic.
Some may scoff at the band nowadays or for the fact that this album even received a re-issue, as if it was an insult to their anti-capitalism stance. But without said re-issue, I might have never discovered an incredible, water-disturbing landmark record that changed me for the better. That re-release put the conversation and importance of ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come‘ right back on the table for so many people, 12 years after it first hit shelves. And Refused themselves sure haven’t forgotten this record, as they still play most of it live even now, with just as much power as they had when they first released it. For the legacy that ‘Shape…‘ left and for the impact it had on me, all I can say is: thank you, Refused. Thank you so fucking much, from the bottom of my heart.