Sweden’s Refused is rightly held in high regard for 1998’s The Shape Of Punk To Come, an undisputed classic that served as a rallying cry for bands longing to incorporate sounds from outside the walls of aggressive music. But it’s just as easy to forget that, prior to that album’s release, Refused was only ever a middle-of-the-road hardcore band. Releasing its best album, then almost immediately disbanding allowed Refused’s legacy to grow, even if that new shape of punk never actually came.
After reuniting in 2012 and playing to giant festival crowds, Refused quietly began working on new music, the result of which is Freedom. While the album contains trace amounts of what made The Shape so canonical, Freedom feels like a concerted effort to dismantle whatever legacy was built during the band’s absence. Opening with “Elektra,” Freedom puts its best foot forward with a track full of prog-rock riffing that feels like a logical next step for Refused. Couple this with the fact that vocalist Dennis Lyxzén can still scream like his younger self and “Elektra” gives the impression that Refused is renewed. That is, until Freedom begins grasping at straws.
“Dawkins Christ” borrows the structure of the band’s biggest hit, “New Noise,” with chugging chords and a drum roll building to a manic release that seemingly begs Lyxzén to cop one of his own lines and yell, “Can I scream?” It’s a throwback that works, but at various points during Freedom it sounds as if Lyxzén is merely paying tribute to his past. It’s all the more noticeable when certain songs begin to feel like Lyxzén’s post-Refused band, The (International) Noise Conspiracy. It’s most pronounced during “War On The Palaces,” as its groovy, ’70s-rock riff allows for more hip-shaking than Refused ever warranted. With some horn blasts and a sing-along chorus mixed in, it’s a track that sounds like T(I)NC on steroids, but a slightly muted Refused.
Freedom never seems to settle on a single direction, but it’s hard to say whether that’s good or bad. In the case of the relatively straightforward “366,” the band cherry picks from its hardcore past and does an admirable job of piecing something together that feels fresh. But it’s when Refused attempts to sound modern—through ultra-slick production tricks and modern sonic collage—that the album truly falters.
“Françafrique” is cheesy to a fault, opening with a children’s chorus chanting “exterminate the brutes” before the band comes in with a cock-rock shuffle. With its processed drum breaks and ineffective sloganeering, it’s the kind of disaster Refused fans were likely dreading as soon as Freedom was announced. “Old Friends / New War” similarly grabs from various sources, attempting to incorporate pitch-shifted vocals and a folk-rock strut. Even on the relatively straightforward “Destroy The Man” Refused’s choice to continually inject sultry vocal samples every few seconds is more distracting than useful.
Freedom ultimately shows Refused’s dedication to exactly what the album title implies. As Lyxzén so frankly put it, he had no desire to meet anyone’s expectations. This results in the band pushing forward creatively, but also actively working against the things that made it special two decades ago. Whether people want to acknowledge it, the Refused of old, along with its legacy, are fucking dead. Whether it was worth killing off, that’s for the band to decide.