“Nothing has changed,” cries Refused vocalist Dennis Lyxzén on the first track of the band’s long-awaited comeback record Freedom. It’s a strangely meek statement for a band that hasn’t released an album for over a decade and a half, not to mention one whose 1999 opus was boldly titled The Shape of Punk to Come, a record that perfected the audacious combination of metal, jazz and punk rock. Hailing from Sweden, Refused existed outside the American hardcore movement of the 1980s and 1990s and, based on their music, only had a tangential relationship with early UK punk and European post-punk, so, coming from musicians outside the traditional punk framework, everything about The Shape of Punk to Come seemed like an imaginative, brazen reworking of the infrastructure that was already in place. Refused infamously dissolved at the height of their game as punk rock revisionists, but their stature as influential radicals in the genre has only grown since then, which explains the resounding success of their surprising resurgence over a decade later.
But that quote from “Elektra”, a song teeming with imagery of warfare, genocide and destruction, refers less to the status of the band after all these years and more to the world around it. Refused’s politicized statements have only become more relevant in the time since 1999, a decade and a half that has seen horrific acts of terrorism, mass violence, political corruption, assaults on privacy, and drone warfare. Refused seemed to have picked the worst possible time to disband.
With Freedom, they have a lot to catch up with and a lot to live up to. Fans still expect a progressive ethos both in the band’s musicality and in their politics. For as wrong as it would be to expect something as seemingly revolutionary as The Shape of Punk to Come 16 years later, reunited bands are always subjected to unfair comparisons to their past successes. For Refused, a band who always made a point of tirelessly pushing forward, this is an ironic consequence.
Contrary to that approach, though, Freedom features a surprising amount of nods to their punk roots. “Elektra” is in many ways traditional Refused — haggard guitar riffs, spastic drums and violent shifts in structure — but at its most conventional, filtered through modern rock riffs and vocals that unflatteringly resemble the latest Foo Fighters more than anything else. “Dawkins Christ” is a more classic hardcore-metal mashup, almost like an updated Cro-Mags cut, the kind of thing Refused excelled at before The Shape of Punk to Come projected them away from anything so standard. These songs stay well within the Refused wheelhouse, but don’t exactly inspire any confidence that the band has retained their ability to upset punk music standards the way they used to.
There are tracks on Freedom that do just that, of course, but to mixed success. “Françafrique”, with its melodic guitars, funky beat and obtuse hooks (“Murder murder murder / Kill kill kill,” “Just another word for genocide”), comes embarrassingly close to meatheaded nu-metal groove, but it’s luckily upstaged by the following track, the similar but more musically challenging “Thought Is Blood”. Novel instrumental additions such as the horn section on “War of the Palaces” (and sparsely throughout the album) and the acoustic guitars that guide “Old Friends/New War” work as much needed sonic variation, as well.
Thematically, Refused work on a similar channel. Freedom is as politically vital as the band’s early records, but the 16 years of distance between their studio comeback and their classic 1999 album have bred a bland kind of heavy-handedness to it all. The song titles alone paint the returned Refused as a typically stunted political punk act: “Thought is Blood” is painfully insipid, “Destroy the Man” is hilariously trite, and “Useless Europeans” is baldly provocative. As always, Refused imbue a certain sense of irony into their music, but only so many chants of “murder murder murder” or “destroy the man” are tolerable, though, to be fair, Lyxzén’s blunt approach to politics works well enough beside the muscular, brutish stadium rock tropes that the band adopts throughout the record.
In many ways, Refused do justice to their prominent legacy by upsetting the impenetrable status quo of thrash-and-bang hardcore, but while crossover potential is huge with their more conventional, contemporary sound, Freedom is doomed to connect on a far more limited level than their early triumphs, especially with the genre’s diehards. Some of what they experiment with on the record comes out poorly, a lot of it is good, but, importantly, all of it is still interesting. The Shape of Punk to Come revitalized hardcore with artful genre-clashing, and Freedom is a continuation of that idea, but whereas their early classic melded punk with “highbrow” music like jazz, their latest challenges fans and punk purists by putting it in with dumb, generic rock sounds. But that gets to the heart of the Refused identity as, above all else, a band of provocateurs. In that respect, Lyxzén is correct to posit that nothing has changed: the world is still falling apart, and Refused can still mix it up, for better and for worse.