Flashback time: 2012. It was one of most exciting times of my life, not least because my favorite band, At the Drive-In, was reuniting. At the same time Refused, another favorite, announced their own reunion. Two of the biggest band-reunion dreams of my lifetime were coming true at the same time.
I had to choose, though. I was broke and could only see one; At the Drive-In won out. Their show at Red 7 in Austin was amazing. I'm sure the reunion show Refused played at Fun Fun Fun Fest that year was awesome too, but I missed it. Flash forward three years and, with a new Refused album out called Freedom, I realize that I made the right choice. Oh boy, did I ever.
It's been a long road to this point with Refused. In 1998, they revolutionized the future of hardcore music with The Shape of Punk to Come. It's easy to understate how important this album was, but if a generation of kids had not heard “New Noise,” some of the greatest punk rock music of all time may not have existed. It's like that old Velvet Underground adage. Every kid that heard that song back in the day formed a band.
On a personal note, it wasn't “New Noise” that inspired me. It was “Summerholidays vs. Punkroutine.” The lyric “rather be forgotten than remembered for giving in” became a mantra for me, inspiring almost every move I've made in my life. But just as quickly as Refused came to prominence, they threw in the towel. Like a flickering flame, they burned brightest just before they disappeared, seemingly forever. With a statement entitled “Refused are Fucking Dead,” named for a song on The Shape of Punk to Come, Refused didn't just break up. They demanded that their legacy be forgotten.
That wasn't possible for those of us touched by their work. We could not ignore the impact The Shape of Punk to Come had in our lives. That's why it was so unthinkable that Refused would ever reunite. When their reunion was announced in 2012, I have to admit that it not only came as a shock, it came with a pause. Refused was a band with principles. Could they be selling out? Reunions are typically viewed as shameless cash grabs. Even in the case of my beloved At the Drive-In, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez basically copped that Coachella offered them money they couldn't refuse. For a band as dedicated to their ethos as Refused, it seemed bizarre and vaguely offensive that they would perform a nostalgia-based reunion tour.
Even still, I could not deny how blown away I was by their performances live. They stormed back with a fire and a passion that I found awe-striking. Refused were back with a vengeance, and it finally made sense why they would reunite. For all the qualms I had with the ethics behind it, Refused managed to pull off a genuine reunion.
Where did it go off the rails? In 2014, Refused had not performed in almost two years and most of us assumed they were done again. Then came the announcement that they were firing guitarist Jon Brännström. Why would a broken-up band fire their guitarist? Obviously something was happening, but this wasn't exactly heartening news.
When Refused announced their reunion album, Freedom, it was a mixed blessing. Sure, I was glad to hear that the band was still kicking, but without Brännström, what was to be expected? Not only that, but reunion albums have a tendency to be underwhelming attempts to recapture a band's youth. To hear this from Refused? No, thank you.
Freedom was released on June 30, and I have to admit that the first singles had piqued my interest. “Elektra” was a huge track, in the vein of “New Noise,” that any Refused fan would have a hard time denying. “Dawkins Christ” and “Françafrique” weren't nearly as exciting, but still showed a certain experimental prowess from the hardcore legends, even if “Françafrique” had a disturbing arena-rock style of production that made me slightly nauseated.
Unfortunately, the release of the full album marked the forever end of my association with the band. For all they might have inspired in me before, Freedom lost me like not many reunion records ever had.
How does one ruin a legacy? By producing an album that is this soulless, this creatively devoid, and this musically awful. Freedom is best summed up by its weakest track, “Servants of Death," which could have been written by Motley Crue. “Françafrique” already had a sound indebted to Permanent Vacation-era Aerosmith that was scary enough to Refused devotees, but who could have predicted that the once-mighty Refused would distribute an album largely composed of '80s hard rock in the guise of creative experimentation.
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“Elektra” gave us hope because it sounded like Refused. I've never been one to criticize a band for changing gears, but it is almost a slap in the face to open this record with that song, which is a new anthem for the modern era. As the album plays out, it quickly becomes obvious that “Elektra” was throwing a bone to us. Pandering. When you hear what Refused is actually into doing these days, you realize what a cheap ploy that was.
This is no longer the sound of the shape of punk to come. Instead, what Refused birthed with Freedom is a testament to the fact that getting old sucks. In the end, it's probably our bad as fans for expecting them to be able to produce the kind of aggressive, experimental masterpieces of their youth. But to fall this far, it makes you wonder why they even bothered.
Freedom is disgraceful and proves once and for all that, like they said so many years ago, Refused are fucking dead. The hollow shell that walks among us producing music is not the same band I once idolized. This perpetuation is simply a shame. I'll always carry the memories, but this is one reunion record best left on the cutting room floor.