If you don’t know who Refused are, or that they’re (along with Born Against) Fucking Dead, you must be so young that you missed the phase in the early 2000s where every two-bit nü-metal act on the planet was citing their final record as a major influence (for the masochists among you here is a reminder of just how bad this era was). You young rapscallions are perfectly capable of using AltaVista yourselves so I’ll spare you the history lesson; all you need for the moment is that the band split in 1998, and few ever expected them to return. Releasing an album as brazenly audacious as The Shape of Punk to Come then quitting just months afterwards was so awesomely punk rock that the chance of a reunion doing anything other than tarnishing their legendary status was slim. However, unlike Born Against, Refused eventually chose not to remain Fucking Dead, reuniting to play live shows again in 2012. I was lucky enough to attend one of these, and though it can’t possibly have matched the atmosphere of their intimate (read: sweaty) basement gigs of the ’90s, they certainly didn’t tarnish their legacy, putting on an incredible performance to a rabid crowd.
Producing new music so long after a classic release is another matter. Carcass released the best comeback record in recent memory, but for them the pressure wasn’t so high given that fans were merely hoping for an improvement over Swansong1. Refused‘s comeback was destined to be divisive however it turned out, so it’s just as well they’re punk enough not to give a shit. Punk enough, even, to barely play punk any more.
“Elektra” starts the album with the kind of angular riffing and tightly controlled rage they pioneered on The Shape of Punk to Come, but Freedom isn’t
free founded on hardcore. Instead it is one but one flavor in a sonic fruit salad that combines the the elderberry of electronica, the banana of blues, the fig of funk, the pineapple of pop and the sweet ita palm2 of indie that all sum to a remarkably varied yet somehow cohesive, well-constructed whole.
That mention of the dreaded ‘p’ word (pop, not palm) and the decision to collaborate with producer-to-the-stars Shellback may raise a few eyebrows, if not middle fingers, but while this is Refused‘s most accessible album it certainly isn’t lacking in substance. For example, “Old Friends / New War,” “Françafrique” and “Servants of Death” are built around the kind of simple, pulsating riffs that Queens of the Stone Age or even Rage against the Machine used to write, but Refused‘s superior compositional skill and inimitable sense of invention give them far greater depth than achieved by either of those acts. And while Freedom has lost some of the aggression of their back catalogue, the current of brooding anger that flows under tracks like “Dawkins Christ,” “Thought Is Blood” and “366” more than adequately replaces it.
My main gripe with the album is, yet again, the mastering [dammit we’re getting so repetitive… – Ed.]. This is very dynamic material and deserves a wide dynamic range to really shine, but instead is squashed to the industry standard DR6. Refused‘s distorted guitar tone was always fantastic but is severely compromised here, particularly on “Thought Is Blood” and “Destroy the Man.” Still, we rant about this every week so I’ll spare you further pro-greater-DR propaganda, especially when this is such an enjoyable record.
We were never going to get another The Shape of Punk to Come, and long-term fans may balk at the pop leanings and safer overall tone of the album, but this wonderful new noise still sounds like Refused, even if it promotes dancing over moshing.
Tracks to Check: “Elektra,” “Old Friends / New War,” “Françafrique” and “Servants of Death”