The Shape of Punk to Come

That I’ve lived long enough to see albums released well after my adolescence reissued and repositioned as “seminal” is enough to spur on a midlife crisis. But in the case of Refused and their swan song full-length, The Shape of Punk to Come, it’s a little easier to swallow. The band’s life was cut short, not by some tragic set of circumstances, but simply because they weren’t able to live up to their own ambitions. Not that these Swedes were a bunch of megalomaniacs. No, they—as the title (a play on a revolutionary record by Ornette Coleman) indicates—were simply wanting to take the form, within which they had been working since 1992, to some other plane, one devoid of the cliches, self-policing single-mindedness, and increasingly formalized cadence.

They certainly achieved such goals within the parameters of their 1998 release, but as shown on the accompanying documentary, Refused Are Fucking Dead, living up to those goals—and inciting their audience to do the same—was a different proposition altogether, and they collapsed under the pressure. The DVD, which also includes additional live footage and videos, reveals a band both brought together and torn apart by their idealism. Like, say communism, “punk” in theory is a nirvana of sorts, an oasis of creative freedom where one’s ideas can’t be contained by stylistic affinity or technical proficiency. But even before Refused really attempted to bust down punk’s own walls of conformity, before they even brought their new recorded accomplishments to fruition in the live arena, they were shot down short. Even what should have been their last hurrah, a basement show in the wiles of Virginia, was closed down three songs in by the pigs.

So all that’s left to remember them by, in addition to several EPs and a few other albums, is this one defining document. And yeah, it’s a doozy. Admittedly, I haven’t played it too much in the intervening dozen years, so perspective is a little hard. That you can hear their metallically hardened tumult in any one of a number of AP cover stars shouldn’t diminish its impact one iota. The leadoff “Worms of the Senses/Faculties of the Skull” has had its steely veneer co-opted by tens of would-be rehashers, but it still juts off into unexpected tangents worthy of the album’s free-jazz reference. Still, you don’t hear too many of those wannabes stating they’ve “got a bone to pick with capitalism” because surely they don’t. Indeed, the dogma Refused posited was half of what distinguished the band. For all the rhetoric the band’s spiky brethren would spit out, one has rarely gotten the sense that their lyrics were anything more than the equivalent of cheers for preaching to the flock. Not so here.

“Liberation Frequency” seems slightly more polemic, utilizing motifs that singer Dennis Lyxzén later reworked with the (International) Noise Conspiracy, but not with the same ferocity. Indeed, that’s the difference between Refused and all that followed in their wake: no one was capable of this strident departure from the norm then, and no one is able to accomplish the sonic equivalent now.

It’s easy to fall back on hyperbole when examining records that have stood the test of time, but even inflated adjectives don’t do Refused justice. This was a band that lashed out in all directions, both inwardly and outwardly. They don’t need our respect to justify the how or what of what they did. Go ahead and call it “ahead of their time” (they kind of did), but also remember how the rest of the world was lacking too.
Stephen Slaybaugh