My All-Timers: 10. Refused — The Shape of Punk to Come
In 2012, Refused were able to reunite for a series of shows at Coachella, get paid a boatload of money, and have a bunch of people there to see them, all because they made one record. Sure, they made a couple records before it, but those don’t matter a whole lot. What does matter is that an entire legend had been built around this one record, released in 1998 and then never really promoted due to the band breaking up immediately after. This one musical statement had been sent into the atmosphere, in hopes of at least someone caring, and word of mouth caused it to reach a level of reverence few bands could ever hope to see.
As unlikely as it might have seemed, the record’s title seems to predict this future: The Shape of Punk to Come. It sounds like arrogance, but don’t worry. It’s more like hope. The hope that any bands even remotely under the punk umbrella will push themselves to greater heights and create sounds that reflect the tumultuous times in which they’re made.
But no music comes from nowhere. Refused were unknowns from Sweden, a previously barren musical landscape, so they had no qualms about proudly wearing their influences on their sleeves. Their visual aesthetic and revolutionary politics owed a debt to early-90’s art punks Nation of Ulysses. This album cover is lifted from the severely underrated Rye Coalition, who lifted it from a 50’s jazz record. “Refused Are Fucking Dead” references a song title from 90’s noise punks Born Against. And the title of the record references weirdo jazz guy Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come.
I mention this all not to slam Refused for being unoriginal grifters (though this is exactly what Refused naysayers do all the time). I see this stuff as the open admission that all of us are products of our influences, and this is okay as long as we cobble our influences together into something new. No matter how many people try to say Refused ripped off the previously mentioned bands, none of them can make a credible case that the actual sound of The Shape of Punk to Come is a wholesale ripoff. That’s because what Refused did on this record was unprecedented, and hasn’t really been done since.
This record does almost everything under the sun a punk band could have thought up in 1998. There were the echoes of tough guy 90’s hardcore. The straight-ahead punk fury. The still-fresh sounds of electronic music. The jangly energy of indie punk. The gentle strains of classical violin. It was all there. Not one song on The Shape of Punk to Come tells the whole story, so you have to dig into the whole thing in order to appreciate its genius.
Anyone familiar with Refused will point to “New Noise” as their crowning achievement, and others will use it as evidence that this was glorified nu-metal. The fact that the “Butterfly” dopes in Crazy Town saw fit to cover it doesn’t shut that argument down, but hey, a classic is a classic in the eyes of many, even chain wallet-wearing dullards. The opening riff of “New Noise” is an indelible moment in all of music, and the fury that follows after it is not nu-metal, but rather a monster riff that knows no bounds and conforms to no genre. It just gets you fired up beyond belief, which is the root goal of all hardcore punk anyway. And when Dennis Lyxzen repeatedly screams, “The new beat” at the song’s conclusion, any doubt of Refused’s sincerity should be totally squashed.
Where Refused rises above their contemporaries at the time, and where they make the case for this record’s artistic value, comes in the songs in which they play far outside the boundaries of punk or hardcore. The verses in “Liberation Frequency” resemble elevator muzak — a gently strummed, toe-tappingly inoffensive background over which Lyxzen both croons and then more forcefully sings, “We want the airwaves back.” The choruses are gigantic, but the verses keep lightening the mood. “The Apollo Programme Was a Hoax” only uses an upright bass and a melodica to build a mood of tension and revolution. “Tannhauser/Derive” is the record’s true masterpiece, effortlessly blending violin with a pounding, purposeful dirge that frequently explodes and simmers.
If The Shape of Punk to Come has one real message, it’s that, as Lyxzen says at the end of “New Noise,” “Capitalism is indeed organized crime, and we are all the victims.” This is stated even more clearly in the concluding verses of “The Deadly Rhythm,” possibly the record’s most headbang-inducing song. Over a bruising riff, Lyxzen screams, “We can no longer pay the price. We’ll get organized. We’ll no longer believe working for you will set us free.” By referencing the infamous slogan above the gates of Auschwitz, there is no mistaking what they’re talking about. We are breaking our backs for our employers, and we are not being properly compensated for it.
A frequent knock on The Shape of Punk to Come is that it hasn’t aged well. Its flourishes of electronic music sound dated, and its brand of hardcore didn’t influence anyone. I think I’ve already proven how it still has musical validity and vitality, but as a record with an actual message, this thing is still as alive as ever. Their statements on capitalism will never not be true, and the need for workers to organize is more true than ever. Beyond the incredible musicianship and ingenious songwriting, The Shape of Punk to Come is always going to stand as one of the most politically righteous records of my life. “I’m still certain that what motivates me is more important than any piece of paper could be.” Uh, YEAH. What they said.