A Moment Suspended in Time
Written by Gene Buonaccorsi
Last week seminal, reclusive and kind of retired Swedish punk band Refused announced a string of 500 capacity shows across the US this summer. This was, subjectively, the best thing to happen so far this month. The band only toured North America sparingly in 2012 after reuniting, and their original US tour in 1998 was cut short and occurred before much of their impact had set in.
It was in 1998 that Refused released their opus The Shape of Punk to Come, only to break up after that brief US stint. It’s not hard to find write-ups on their history and on the album, so I’ll spare you the laudatory prose for now. What captivates me about Shape is its kinetic motion and chaotic arrangements splintered by singer Dennis Lyxzen’s pissed-off shouts. Its tongue-in-cheek title, spoken, textured interludes, and cohesive personality are all embodied by its subtitle: “A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Tracks.” Listening to it today, the raw self-awareness is disarming at times, completely sensible at others.
Of course, The Shape of Punk to Come isn’t a secretive cult gem anymore. This tour will exist in a world where the album’s conscious, off-the-beaten path approach is commonly found in the work of bands like United Nations, Single Mothers and many more. Over the past 15 years, the album’s steady underground momentum allowed some of the songs from The Shape of Punk to break free and seep into mainstream culture as well. I still remember the shock of lead single “New Noise” dropping during the gnarliest part of Tony Hawk’s Underground. The context that the album was released in has disappeared (because, you know, time) and the album lives on in myriad ways.
What doesn’t necessarily come through in legacy pieces about the album, or homages by modern voices, or in god awful remixes, is the importance of the patient, deliberate tone that Refused took in writing their swan song. The Shape of Punk to Come wasn’t just intentional, it demonstrated that smart art through punk rock could be the new aesthetic. What was traditionally a very direct musical genre was stretched and reformatted by the stylistic and thematic layering of Shape’s 12 tracks.
“Liberation Frequency,” the album’s second track, is the picture of restraint on an album bursting at the seams with expressive character. The song’s straightforward verse-chorus structure and repeated lyrics create a jarring illusion of normalcy. Lyxzen’s voice is almost comical in its fluctuating sing-song — an intentional softening set against his stark warning about media messages and the dissemination of information. Paired with the song’s recurrent lyrics his performance verges on hypnotic. Then, at the very end of the second verse, there’s a brief, almost un-graspable moment of silence when all sound disappears before a frantic snare roll and the off-time beatdown of the song’s second chorus.
This moment is the embodiment of Refused’s impact. It illustrates their ability to fuck with the formulae of heavy music without refuting its power. The Shape of Punk to Come was built on moments that were both thought provoking and sonically brutal. Satiric statements and double speak shouted over angular chords. Questioning their own status in a snarl. Hardcore punk rock albums are traditionally written in directly defiant language, but The Shape of Punk to Come is complex, artistically formatted and nuanced.
The aforementioned rest in “Liberation Frequency” is no different. In that moment the tense anger of punk and hardcore music is created using a different method. The jarring individuality of that moment allows Refused’s message to resonate because the chaos and intoxicating rage are intact but they’re not softened by an entire genre’s worth of similarly written songs. Instead the moment risky and it’s quiet and it’s instrumentally disjointed.
If hardcore as a style is blanketed by knowability and finite possibilities, “Liberation Frequency” is strongly rooted to the purposeful context of the album. In the face of hardcore’s relatively static landscape, Refused put stake in both musical and thematic progress and asked for listeners’ patience in appreciating the way that Shape’s tracks discussed and presented their unique argument.
To reshape a genre and move a style forward, moments like the rest in “Liberation Frequency” have to exist. Moments that are so grabbing, so off-putting and demanding of attention that they bring to light just how different the embedded message is. While the foundational aspects of hardcore (fast songs, shouted lyrics, themes of strength and struggle) haven’t changed that much since the late 90s, artists that carry the torch have discovered different ways to say what they wants to say, and has learned to use tools like irony, satire and juxtaposition to describe a changing world. This intentionality is the totem of artistic progress for music. When artists are cognisant of the fact that what they create may transcend their built-in audience, they become empowered to step outside of the easily followable guidelines. They can break time signatures, stand up for different causes, speak from different narrative perspectives and package their albums in aesthetically engaging ways. Simply put, they can ignore the crutch of routine and use intentionality as a jumping-off point to contradict, to consider and to grow.