As Faith No More showed the world a few weeks ago, you can’t keep a good band down, and it seems as though that’s finally sunk in for Refused. Between the serious dearth of live performances anywhere until recently and a coquettish relationship with life as a band itself, it didn’t seem as though the Swedish punks’ reunion in 2012 had amounted to more than a few festival shows and sudden implosion. If that extrapolated vision had panned out without this new album, their last piece of recorded material certainly wouldn’t have been a low point. 1998’s The Shape Of Punk To Come, their assumed swan song release, is still the genre-defining masterpiece it once was, years ahead of its time by fusing sounds that, at the time, no one would even dare to attempt.
Freedom doesn’t better The Shape Of Punk To Come – to even try would be a thankless exercise. Instead, the band – the de facto elder statesman of boundary-pushing, politically charged punk – have toned down the extremities of their past experimentations for something that could even be deemed somewhat accessible. It’s a smart move to make – in 2015, more or less everything has already been done, so Refused have cherry-picked various elements and spliced them together in one album. It all means that Freedom lives up to its name, giving Refused the legroom to do what they want while still maintaining a suitable level of bite and acerbity. Françafrique is a prime example of this, taking horns, a children’s choir and a riff that Lenny Kravitz wouldn’t turn down and melding it into one brilliant post-hardcore package. Elsewhere, Old Friends / New War utilises passionately bashed acoustic guitars for a rough ‘n’ ready cowpunk sound, and Servants Of Death ploughs along with an unashamedly funky bassline. Vocally, it’s a much cleaner affair, with Dennis Lyxzén’s paint-stripping shrieks used more as an accompaniment to some rather fine singing, some as on kinetic opener Elektra. It’s a whole different side to Refused than the one that left the world hanging back in the late ’90s, and while some of the more intense elements have smoothened out over time, it’s a natural progression, and one that’s just as compelling.
The sound may have changed but the intentions haven’t. A lot has happened since 1998, and Freedom acts as a vehicle to convey their unexpurgated opinions. From Françafrique‘s chastising broadsides about French colonisation in the Congo to the messianic lampooning of Dawkins Christ and the illustration of the rich-poor divide on the haunting six-and-a-half minute closer Useless Europeans, they’re the kind of hard-hitting topics that most bands refuse to address. It’s this that makes Refused’s return so worthwhile; they could have easily churned out some hastily-recorded piece of whatever to capitalise on the reunion dollar, but instead they’ve carried forward the ‘stick to your guns’ mentality they’ve always had, albeit with a less extreme sound but exactly the same intent. It’s kill or be killed, and Refused have emerged as carnivorous as ever.
What’s unfortunate is the inevitability that Freedom will largely be ignored by long term Refused fans, either as an attempt to cling on to their best work for as long as humanly possible, or because it’s not the sound this band are known for. For those who do give it a chance though, it’s not their best work, but it’s still a worthy reminder of why Refused are one of the best and most important underground bands to have ever existed. Because for an album that was never supposed to happen, it’s not half bad.
For fans of: letlive., Glassjaw, Jeroan Drive
Words by Luke Nuttall