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Refused | The Shape of Punk to Come | review | metal | Lollipop
The Shape of Punk to Come (Epitaph)
by Tim Den
How do you critique the pinnacle of an entire movement? How do you describe an entity that never paused long enough for the observer to take down its shape? What can you say about a band whose uniqueness, ideology, and fearlessness would never be matched again? Fuck, sounds like I'm talking about The Beatles, doesn't it?
Refused, by the time of The Shape of Punk to Come, were indeed very much like The Beatles. Having been leaders of their scene - both in Sweden and in the States - they'd put out arguably metalcore's best album ever (Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent), and were tired of violent kids ignoring their political diatribes while beating each other up. The band retreated into an eight-month studio session to reinvent themselves, and the result was The Shape of Punk to Come, by far the most influential hardcore album of the last decade. Not to discount Quicksand's Slip, but The Shape of Punk to Come was a major wrench in the hardcore world. Nothing like it had ever been heard by the genre's fans or practitioners. From the opening track, it threw listeners for a head fuck: Spoken word, traffic noise, BAM!, Fugazi-meets-Roni Size Reprazent Middle Eastern riffage, electronic breakbeats in between skreeching arpeggios, murderous Marxist manifestos screaming in the red, finished off with radio frequencies peaking and Swedish hardcore techno. IN ONE SONG.
Uuuuhhh... you can only imagine the reaction...
The average hardcore kid couldn't even complain (as they always do). The Shape of Punk to Come was so far out of anything anyone had ever heard, people couldn't even get themselves together to criticize it. It was that ridiculously surprising, shocking, and - to some - revelatory. Gone were ultra-heavy guitars, replaced by a DC-influenced urgency x 1000. Refused had dug deep down within their sound and realized that power and effectiveness came from their drummer (David Sandström, my favorite drummer of all time), and promptly came up with 12 songs that wrapped rhythm inside out and upside down around the listener. Brilliantly placed stops ("New Noise," a classic underground anthem by this point in time), genius patterns ("The Deadly Rhythm"), and freight train viciousness ("Refused Are Fucking Dead," and the title track) sucked attention in and hypnotized it like a swinging watch, boiling your blood with an exotic sexiness.
Yet somehow, with upright basses and cellos dominating multiple tracks ("The Deadly Rhythm," "Tannhäuser/Derivé," and closer "The Apollo Programme Was a Hoax"), soccer stadium noise and a "fake live" ending perfectly setting up eruptions ("New Noise"), and fashionable uses of house ("New Noise," "Bruitist Pome #5," courtesy of guitarist/brainiac Jon), Refused were able to present the mixture in a minimalistic, "beat first" palette that was almost contradictory. How could any band tackle such diverse elements without convoluting the aural field? How were they able to convey drum'n'bass aesthetics with just a chunky bass sound and staccato drums? Ah, therein lay the magic and mystery of Refused. How were they able to do any of this, indeed. Yet they did. This defiance of logic remains The Shape of Punk to Come's ultimate attraction. It took influences from music's opposite spectrums, stripped them of their "style" and retained only their substance, fused their mutated DNA together and formed something wholly new. The sinewy framework belied the breadth of range it held, but once encountered, there was no mistaking its kaleidoscopic wonders.
Hardcore and underground music stared in awe like a bitch-slapped ho. Slogan-touting purists and self-proclaimed "social poets" were stunned. And as years passed, The Shape of Punk to Come would frighteningly live up to its title. This was the best that hardcore was ever going to come up with, whether you knew it the moment of its release or learned of its legend later on. But, like everything that burns too brightly, Refused imploded shortly after its release. And although the world certainly has tried to lure the ex-members into talking about the fabled giant (to coincide with these reissues, Alternative Press supposedly offered Refused THE COVER: Turned down), we the disciples are left with nothing but continued reverence and unanswered questions. Why did the band break up? Was it really cuz guitarist Kristopher quit mid-tour? Was it cuz of Dennis' political agendas getting in the way of songwriting? Was it due to irreconcilable tension hinted at in The Shape of Punk to Come's (enormous manifesto of an) inlay? Or was Dennis really incapable of keeping up with the rest of the band (rumors abound that ProTools editing was the only way to get the vocals in synch with the music)?
We can only guess. And contemporary bands can only continue to ape this holy grail (cough Christiansen cough Since By Man cough every fucking band under the sun). There will never be another The Shape of Punk to Come: An album that will remain relevant, unique, and trend-setting for all time.
"Rather be forgotten than be remembered for giving in."