Success – actual zeitgeist humping success, the type that results in lives changed and annuls rewritten – is a goal with posts forever in flux.
The world is full of musicians that could have been something, their souls being turned brittle as they ache for the secret to where they went wrong and why they never were. The truth is, the equation for this sort of success is forever rewriting itself. Nirvana, for example, never formed intending to blow the roof off underground rock; they accidentally wrote a hit song, had a charismatic singer and arrived at a juncture where people would rather listen to packed orphanages being set upon with flamethrowers and rabid dogs than one more note of hair metal.
Loosely speaking, the ingredients are thus; individuality, something to say, an unquantifiable star factor… and timing. Sweden’s Refused had all of this in spades. Except they were utterly, utterly shit at timing.
When Refused messily disbanded in 1998, a few months after the release of their seminal ‘The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts’ (but you’re fine just with ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come’), it’s unlikely they envisioned just what would happen next. That album’s key song ‘New Noise’ – punk of the most angular variety, but hard-edged enough to become part of the nu-metal boom just around the corner – soon became something of a beloved alt. rock night staple.
Bands that subsequently broke big – names as eclectic as At The Drive-In, Paramore, Linkin Park and Blink-182 – freely expressed their admiration for its parent album’s pioneering fusion of punk, hardcore, jazz and techno. The record has long been a fixture on any greatest albums list worth your attention. Yet Refused saw little of the spoils they deserved for forgiving the paths that led to others’ superstar careers. You’d forgive them a little grumble, right?
2015 album ‘Freedom’, coming after their 2013 reunion, suggested the band were still excited by the possibilities of the recording studio. It’s playfulness with time signatures, funk, choppy Mod guitars – and God knows what else – made for a thrilling listen. This was a record the equal of any the band made in their youthful prime. The fire of the group’s far-left politics still raged. The tunes still sounded desperately abrasive. It took a tonne of risks. And still that record doesn’t prepare you for what ‘War Music’ transpires to be…
‘War Music’ is the best album Refused have ever made. It has more in common with the violent swing of a sledgehammer than any punk record we’ve heard this year. As confrontational as its album title suggests; the contemporary mood seems to have galvanised them to push further and harder.
Opener ‘REV001’ sounds like the band pressing reset on their entire career to date, a rallying cry for another battle against the bullshit. What follows is some of the most straight-up punk rock the band have made since their youthful, uneven debut ‘This Just Might Be… The Truth’ in 1994. ‘Violent Reaction’ fuses the chug of stoner metal with the sassy post-hardcore that REF001 performed so smoothly.
‘Damaged III’s rage flails and flaps and rarely hits its targets, and yet sounds like the most fun anyone has had with electric guitars in years. Closer ‘Economy Of Death’, as rudimentary a rock song as Refused have ever written – jazz and techno must not have received the invite to this party – ultimately defines everything special about Refused’s second posthumous time around. It is, principally, a reminder that rock boast few sounds as vital as Dennis Lyxzén’s scream.
‘War Music’ is not, it must be said, the shape of punk to come. What it is, however, is a perfect microcosm of everything brilliant punk ever was – and what it can continue to be. Refused may well be utterly, utterly shit at timing – but even after all these years, they remain brilliant at everything else.