Refused are best known for their legendary third LP The Shape of Punk to Come, their innovative 1998 effort that forever changed hardcore. It would be easy to pontificate on just why that album was so monumental, from its sublime harmonies to the addition of crisp electronics and careful incorporation of whirring jazz. It was like nothing that came before it, and nothing after. So some fans will surely be pleased to know that the legendary post-punk Swedes have returned to their original form with their fifth LP War Music. Return to form however, can be difficult to ascertain as to its intent and effect, as that return can be easily heard as a regression.
What is absolutely certain however is that this return to form means brutal and violent passages of raw guitar, neck-breaking percussion, and stop/start trickery between each bridge. Breakdowns are not included, and quite frankly wouldn’t have fit to begin with. Effectively War Music is a toolkit that features only a sledgehammer.
Brutality aside, Refused can still build dynamic choruses that linger with sometimes alarming efficiency. “I Wanna Watch the World Burn” has an absolute earworm of one, with a coinciding pitched and gentler guitar tone that doesn’t feel as slam-centric as other tracks. “Blood Red” has a surprisingly folky chorus with open acoustic guitars accentuating a choral gang chant. Dig deep enough throughout and you can find simply inspired choruses just about anywhere.
Coinciding with this approach are interesting passages, tones and codas that break through some of the monotony that shows its face too often throughout. “Malfire” has a guitar melody that alternates from chugging to shining palm-muted accents. “Turn the Cross” is propulsive, an utter grenade of a track that bursts from verse to chorus with biting efficiency, its own momentum overriding its sometimes simplistic construction.
There’s seldom a track here that doesn’t feel anthemic in its design, engineered to motivate, focused to inspire and almost by means of sonic telepathy motivate your fist to punch the air as hard as you can. “Damage III” and “The Infamous Left” are manic and brutish slogs, aural fistfights recorded into digestible pieces. And there is something oddly nostalgic about this, perhaps with its antiquated connections to hardcore’s earliest days.
The problem ties back to that toolkit mentioned above—that aside from choruses, there is little to no nuance here. One could argue that it’s not necessary for what Refused are attempting. However their prior LP Freedom would have indicated a potentially different arc. Refused are capable of reaching for more and chose not to. It’s a brave choice, but one that limits and confines as much as it assists in focusing their energies.
War Music is a capable effort from hardcore veterans of who did more to redefine its attributes than any other band in the past 20 years. While the album takes listeners through myriad well-structured and bombastic pieces—each one layered with a profound confrontational energy backed by a hearty production—the album lacks a fundamental maturity that demarcates what should be expected growth.