Review: Refused – Freedom
Swedish hardcore legends Refused lived and died in a glorious blaze across the better part of the 90’s. The music and legend of their apparent swansong, The Shape of Punk To Come, left a lasting impression on both the political leanings and aesthetic preferences of scores of angry young people who came into an appreciation of heavy music in the new millennium. This was a band that abandoned every hardcore trope they could in a bold, borderline Maoist pursuit of the future of rock music. Refused were deeply polarizing in their final years, managing to get more pop-influenced while also becoming less approachable, therefore considered sellouts on multiple, generally mutually contradictory fronts. However, over time Shape has become a part of rock music canon, and Refused are generally remembered as a brilliant band ahead of their time that burned out before the rest of us caught up.
Their breakup letter to the public from 1998 is hilariously idealistic – the final action they needed to take to solidify their unimpeachable record of fighting “the man” and fiercely opposing capitalism. Seventeen years later, they’ve done what no one wanted them to do and created a new album, Freedom, released in June of this year. If they could pull off a strong 15+ year comeback record, they could join the righteously reborn ranks of Cynic and Gorguts, bands that have proved that their taste and relevance transcend the trends of any given decade. Did they do it? Is the new Refused record the panacea to the miasma of fascist capitalism holding the Western world in a vice grip, or even just a really killer record that stretches the limits of what modern music can sound like?
I am sad to report that Freedom is neither of these things. Freedom is a pretty “OK” rock record with some flashes of brilliance swimming in a confused genre soup.
This review is being printed months after the release date because I kept hoping that my anarchist third eye would be pried open to reveal something masterful. Everyone was confused by Refused in ’98, so maybe they were still ahead of the game and I had to catch up, I thought. However, I’m increasingly convinced that Freedom is a failed experiment that no amount of hindsight will ever fully justify.
In Freedom, Refused continue their tradition of marrying angular hardcore riffs with dance beats and a pop-informed vocal delivery. The strongest moments on the record are those that rely on creative guitar work and go easy on the pop, like album opener “Elektra” and the “New Noise”-reminiscent “Dawkins Christ”.
The record really stumbles when Refused starts to build tracks around lifeless funk grooves and repetitive hip-hop inspired vocals. They just don’t have the sleazy touch of a true trap star to keep those simple, instantly hooky chants from sounding like hopscotch rhymes. Refused had a pretty strong grasp on the compelling intersections of EDM and rock music in the ’90s, but trying to “keep up with the times” just isn’t a good look on these svelte, well-tailored Swedes.
Freedom may have been salvageable if it were condensed into an EP-length release. The moments that are great can be REALLY great, but there isn’t enough strong material here to engage the listener on all 43 minutes of genre-bending silliness. Consider “366”, which has has an emotive, guitar-driven chorus that compliments Refused’s core aesthetic very well, but otherwise features totally forgettable grooves and a disappointing, anticlimactic final riff. “Thought Is Blood” similarly has a great chorus and super doofy… everything else. The token “quiet, somber final track” on the record, “Useless Europeans”, isn’t a poignant denouement – it’s just fucking boring.
The lyrics are probably the most consistently strong feature of Freedom. Dennis Lyxzén’s hyperliterate diatribes are clever and biting. His words read as both informed and emotionally genuine, and I can only wish that the same were true of the other elements of the record. I am particularly disappointed in David Sandstrom’s drumming – his passionate and unique playing has been a major inspiration for me in the past, but on the bulk of Freedom he sounds bored and painfully lazy.
Only a scant few bands have taken up the banner of progressive dance-hardcore since Nation of Ulysses and Refused spearheaded the aesthetic in the ’90s, so it’s great to hear new music in that vein. Refused are on to something utterly compelling, but unfortunately they just don’t have the taste or passion to pull it off – at least not in this decade.
This hurts me more than it’ll hurt you…
2.5/5 Toilets ov Hell