Looking back, it’s pretty amazing that Swedish hardcore troupe Refused crashed MTV. Though there were certainly plenty of interesting discoveries to be found on 120 Minutes, or Subterranean as it would eventually be called after the ’90s, this band still stood apart. The first time I caught the clip for “New Noise” was in the middle of the afternoon, on a Saturday, on an unlikely one-time special on ‘indie’ music. The only other video I remember seeing was Sleater-Kinney’s “Get Up” (which was also cool), but “New Noise” stood out in particular, for its seemingly mismatched sound and visuals—fierce, aggressive post-hardcore sounds with Moogs and intense screams; shaggy hair, sweaters and skinny slacks. They looked Britpop, they sounded utterly vicious. My reaction: what the fuck was that?
Though the title of Refused’s Shape of Punk To Come may be presumptuous, even arrogant, it was 100 percent true. The Swedish group blended complex melodic textures, unhinged hardcore aggression, experimental atmosphere, leftist politics and a visual presentation that seemed more mod than hardcore. And those components most certainly spilled into the punk to come: The Bronx, At the Drive-In and Blood Brothers in sound, The Hives in every other aspect (save for the Communism). The Refused took jabs at their guitars like machetes to man-eating snakes, and pounded rhythms like machine guns on concrete. Yet they did it with style, looking sharp, but a little dangerous. And they were a hell of a lot more fun than hardcore ever let on.
Most of Shape of Punk To Come pushes the volume and intensity as far as it can possibly go, with a handful of instrumental/sound collage tracks to serve as interludes between sonic explosions. “Worms of the Senses/Faculties of the Skull” stretches an epic exercise in pushing hardcore’s boundaries over seven minutes, while “The Deadly Rhythm” lives up to its title in its pursuit of syncopated violence. “Liberation Frequency” finds frontman Dennis Lyxzén singing “we want the airwaves back” over a relatively low-key (and tension-building) verse, which is a goal they temporarily achieved with “New Noise.” And on the subject of that track, there were likely many others similar to myself who were left a bit confused and awestruck by seeing it on MTV. Far from the typical pop video fodder, it doesn’t even really have a chorus, or maybe it’s all chorus, I’m not sure, and I don’t care. It rocks too hard for me to bother parsing.
“Protest Song `86” doesn’t let up on the screams, but interestingly enough, its melody is textured and atypical of hardcore riffs. Minor key chords with traces of jazz elements seep their way in, maintaining a heavy sound, but one that goes against the grain of the aggro norm. Slightly less destructive is “Summerholiday vs. Punkroutine,” which, while definitely raw, finds Lyxzén singing melodically rather than shredding his pipes. And the dual punch of “Refused Are Fuckin’ Dead” and “The Shape of Punk To Come” show off the best of Jon Brännström and Kristofer Steen’s fretwork, with the former spiraling maniacally and the latter edging into an urgent and catchy groove (kicked off by a disco beat, no less).
The very same year as Shape of Punk To Come was released, the band split, with Lyxzén forming The (International) Noise Conspiracy shortly thereafter. Given the band’s volatility, both sonically and politically, it’s not terribly surprising that the inferno dissolved, but a masterpiece was left in its wake. At the opening of the record, Lyxzén recites, “they say the classics never go out of style, but they do.” Shape, contrary to his own declaration, lives on.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.