Refused And The 'Punk' That Never Was

An obscure punk album serves as one man's musical 'missing link.'

They told me that the classics never go out of style, but they do, they do. Somehow baby, I never thought that we do too.

These are the first words you hear on Swedish band Refused's 1998 swansong, "The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts," and they're the perfect summary of this astonishing album: at once an instant classic that synthesizes any number of rock'n'roll substratas, wrapped in an acute awareness that nothing lasts forever -- not even the revolutionary power of music.

You have to be pretty sure of yourself to choose an album title like "The Shape of Punk to Come," but without arrogance or posturing, Refused simply crushes the competition here. Of course, the fact that the band was never heard from again after its release can't help but leave the listener frustrated and wondering what American rock radio could have been if Refused became a household name in 1998 instead of Creed.

I first heard Refused in the fall of that year while sorting submission tapes for the CMJ Music Marathon. On the flip side of the cassette sent in by noted indie label Jade Tree Records were two or three songs that clearly did not belong with the instrumental noodlings of Euphone or the warped indie rock of Joan Of Arc. They were loud, confrontational and explosive, but I had no idea who had created them.

I surmised that Jade Tree had simply taped its own submissions over whatever album had previously been on the cassette, and even contacted the label to see if they could illuminate the situation (they couldn't). I played the song I later learned was the "Shape" title track to several friends, who were just as blown away as I was but were of no help in discerning the band's identity. I learned how to play the song on guitar, annoying my girlfriend by repeatedly running through the eight-note riff that serves as its foundation. I Googled the lyrics I could make out but the results yielded nothing.

All the while, I kept wondering: if the rest of the songs on whatever album this was were as good as the ones on my cassette, would my head explode in awe? It took years before I finally got my hands on "Shape," but upon my first complete listening, I experienced something increasingly rare: a band not only meeting, but wildly exceeding my expectations, and embodying the kind of musical "missing link" I always hope to stumble upon.

In my alternate universe, the title cut could have been as massive as "Smells Like Teen Spirit," its shouted chorus ("We're all dressed up / we've got nowhere to go") an easy rallying cry for younger listeners just discovering aggressive music. Its aforementioned main riff is a headbanger's delight.

With its demands of "We want the airwaves back / We don't just want air time / We want all the time all of the time," "Liberation Frequency" rages like Fugazi in a cramped rec room. The message: you'll never get what you want unless you're prepared to make your voice heard, and all the better if you can do it armed with this kind of musical firepower.

Breaking from hardcore monotony, the songs take circuitous, complicated routes to get the job done, best evidenced via the whisper-to-a-scream detonation of "New Noise." Out of nowhere, the track is interrupted by the bizarrely creepy sounds of old women wailing, only to rise again with even more ferocity as a previously unheard audience cheers its approval.

Adhering to the theme of the album title, Refused also stretches the definition of "punk" with such tracks as "Tannhauser/Derive," an eight-minute spectacle of violin-addled tension-and-release rock that creeps toward oblivion as expertly as "Spiderland"-era Slint.

By contrast, the next song, "The Apollo Programme Was a Hoax," is little more than a few solemn acoustic guitar riffs atop a lonesome upright bass line, the occasional harmonium countermelody and some mumbled lyrics from Dennis Lyxzen. For good measure, there's even the 85-second "Brutist Pome #5," an oblong slice of electronica that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a contemporary Tortoise album.

And while Lyxzen's screamo singing approach ensures his lyrics only occasionally sink in on first pass, he threads "The Shape of Punk To Come" through with some of the most self-aware, honest depictions of life in a modern band ever put to tape in the '90s. It comes to a head on the melodic stomper "Summerholidays vs. Punkroutine," which finds him struggling to identify the imaginary line between making a difference and simply wasting his time.

"I'm tired of losing myself to some stupid childhood dream of what I could have been," he sings. "Money proves the point and I'm stuck between summer holidays and punk routine." The seeds of Refused's dissolution are then planted: "We're all tired of dying, so sick of not trying / Scared that we might fail, we'll accomplish nothing / Not even failure."

Refused clearly wrestled with what its own music meant in the grand scheme of things, but "The Shape of Punk To Come" wound up as a singular achievement whose influence remains mighty years later. Lyxzen went on to form the (International) Noise Conspiracy, but that group has yet to pick up where Refused left off: rattling skulls, kicking down doors and filling brains with uncommon musical food for thought.