Any band, including Refused, assuming the importance of a record that immediately begs for an eye roll and a “yeah, okay dude.” Except, Refused didn’t just think they were making The Shape of Punk to Come. In many ways, they really did. Two years after releasing an album of pure Earth Crisis-style machismo with Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, the Swedish exports had grown discontent with the aimless chest-beating of their contemporaries. In this way, the sonic curveballs thrown in The Shape were not only a rebellion against musical hegemony, but a robust display of radicalism in a scene in the throws of tired tough guy mantra and romantic misadventures.
Although not exactly chart-topping when it initially dropped, it’s still fair to name “New Noise” as The Shape’s hit single. But even here, the band went out of their way to drive away hardcore kids with a minute-long build-up that somehow morphs into a psychedelic funk break—but then the riff hits, and all of a sudden the slow-burning success of this album becomes crystal clear. It’s too catchy to question, and Refused revels in using that infectiousness to drive their protest anthem “We dance to all the wrong songs/ We enjoy all the wrong moves.” That’s what rebellious, loud guitar music is all about—who cares if it’s “wrong?” It’s great!
That’s one of the very few islands of relative normalcy on this thing. It’s hilarious thinking that, during a year that gave us the first albums from Creed (butt-rock 101) and Hatebreed (bro-core 101), some guys from Sweden were approaching punk music like a trip-hop producer. Even without the spoken word samples and discordant guitar effects, the lopsided riffage of opener “Worms Of The Senses / Faculties Of The Skull” would still come off plenty unhinged.
The fact of the matter is, a song like “Liberation Frequency” isn’t weird because of studio trickery. It’s weird because a supposed metalcore band singing falsetto over rim-click drums and muted bass lines has no business working as well as it does. The detours have plenty to offer beyond a counterpoint to surges of energy, but the live show monologue samples found throughout the album almost come off like one of Mike Patton’s lounge music projects.
Oddity abounds on The Shape, more notable in the IDM machinations of “Bruitist Pome #5.” But there’s something timeless madcap to contrast the borderline mathcore adrenaline rush of “Deadly Rhythm” with a foray into hardbop jazz, complete with a rousing standup bass performance. This isn’t a band trying to sound like jazz. It is jazz. They mixed real jazz with obnoxious guitar music. But again, the more straightforward post-hardcore leanings of “Summerholidays Vs. Punkroutine” more than stand on their own merits. The curveballs are always welcome, but so are unforgettable guitar leads and a universally danceable rhythm section.
Ironically, the anti-capitalist aside that sets off the frenetic chaos “The Refused Party Program” would probably come off as more controversial these days, considering how reactionary the internet can get. Refused aren’t just rebelling against punk norms by ending a barn-burning attack with a minute of droning synth manipulations. They used these artistic decisions to reflect an underlying desire to return alternative music to its foundation as, well, just read the title of “Protest Song ’68.” “We could be dangerous/ Art as a real threat” reads like poetry against alien percussion choices, dynamic guitar work, and emotive speaking, singing, and screaming.
The songwriting chops at play on “Refused Are Fucking Dead” and the title track should be emphasized because the former’s warbly bass lines (and coyly bringing back the “New Noise” drum break at the end) aren’t the hallmarks of the song. Every aspect of the arrangement seems to see earworm-generating as a contest of quantity. On an album so assumptive about its significance, making sure that winding central riffs would sound as good as they did in 2023 as they did in 1997.
Circling back to the name, if it can be agreed upon that this album was ahead of its time, the question still remains, is this still The Shape of Punk to Come? Does this album feel as bold as it did in 1998? After hearing “Tannhäuser / Derivè” spend eight minutes building from a serenading cello and eerie singing to syncopated guitar stabs, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Still not convinced? We have another upright bass feature on closer “The Apollo Programme Was A Hoax.” But somehow, the real appeal of the track becomes its beautiful melodies (played on a melodica, no less) and acoustic guitar progressions. It feels like a necessary farewell after almost an hour of chain-pulling. Not just cool, but absolutely needed.
Refused truly outdid themselves, and it shows even more when compared to Refused’s last two post-reunion albums. Both Freedom (2015) and War Music (2019) have great qualities of their own, but it’s fairly obvious that they knew better than to try to top such a creative bonanza. In this way, it’s arguably required listening for aspiring musicians—to try to make something at least close to this level of artistry.
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