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Review: Refused Are F**king Undead on ‘Freedom’

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: June 29, 2015
Label: Epitaph

So, Refused are f—king alive. But nearly two decades after their implosion-cum-self-righteous suicide, who would’ve thought that their vision of punk’s future would sorta sound like arena rock’s recent past? Over the past few years, the Swedish quartet have given their defining work, The Shape of Punk to Come, the much-deserved (but philosophically uncharacteristic) victory lap that their 1998 breakup prevented the first time around. But nostalgia never really jived with the spirit of those boundary-pushing punk experiments or their constant politicking, so the avant-rock seers proclaimed that their reconciliation was “not a reunion anymore” and set loose Freedom which, if nothing else, sounds more like early-aughts FM rock than anything from the existing Refused canon.

Freedom isn’t free from the looming specter of their last beloved record, and there’s precious little on Freedom that lives up to the inventiveness of The Shape of Punk to Come‘s chewed-up post-hardcore. But the thunderstruck “War Pigs”-lope that opens leadoff track “Elektra” suggests that they weren’t really trying for that mantle anyway. Frontman Dennis Lyxzén’s rafter-grazing yowl and Nietzsche for Dummies lyricism on tracks like “Dawkins Christ” embody a centrist shift for the band — an unexpected, but not entirely unwelcome, move toward the sort of brainy, Reddit-pleasing art-rock that Muse has made their wheelhouse. Fine-tipped distortion scribbles fill the margins, but that track — and Freedom as a whole — shirks most of the frills in favor of a newly Led-footed locomotion.

Refused focus on slaying giants this time around, ripping turgid blues riffs from the greased hands of this generation’s most boneheaded cock-rockers. But instead of breathing heavy, Lyxzén transforms “Francafrique”‘s girder-rattling guitar line — which might have been a scummy BloodSugarSexMagik outtake in another life — into a jumping-off point for a condemnation of the still-deplorable relations between mainland Europe and French-speaking countries in Northern Africa. It’s endearingly ham-fisted in a way that Tool fans might find familiar, but for a band of notorious experimenters, it reads as a political act. Gang vocals here give voice to the voiceless, and Lyxzén’s socially engaged lyrics function to self-consciously reclaim bracing instrumental bombast from the horndogs and the paranoiacs.

As with any attempt to redirect the momentum of a wrecking crew as fine-tuned as Refused once was, there are hiccups in their latest reinvention. Album closer “Useless Europeans” makes literal the sort of self-deprecation that Lyxzén hints at throughout the record, so without the band’s intricate musicality, lyrics like “No more Europeans / Go back to sleep” seem just a hair too obvious. It’s a line that Lyxzén traces for the length of the LP, but for the most part, he treads lightly, rendering his writing with the same clarity and accessibility that Refused have given their new instrumental drive. It’s bare, pagan poetry descendent from the likes of Maynard James Keenan and Serj Tankian without either singer’s intermittently off-putting inclination for tongue-twisting absurdity. Occasional static aside, it seems Refused are really making good on their long-stated goal to take the airwaves back, or at least vibrating a little closer to the right frequency.