“You know, to create new Refused music, it was not on my list of things to do,” says Dennis Lyxzén, phoning Rolling Stone from his home in Umeå, Sweden. The 42-year-old singer is discussing his band’s new album, Freedom – the existence of which is as much a surprise to him as it is to the legions of Refused fans who were caught unexpected when an announcement came, two weeks ago, that the Swedish four-piece were releasing their first new material since their seminal 1998 disc, The Shape of Punk to Come.
That effort, which exploded the band’s coiled, live-wire attack and leftist sloganeering with techno beats, jazzy instrumental wanking, ambient soundscapes and a general feeling of anything – and everything – goes, seemed to rearrange the very DNA of hardcore punk itself. At the time, of course, almost no one noticed, and Refused broke up just months after The Shape of Punk to Come‘s release, while in the throes of a disastrous U.S. tour. Their final show, in front of a few dozen kids in a suburban basement in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on October 6th, 1998, was cut short when local police raided the premises. And with that, Refused, to paraphrase the title of one of the album’s songs, were fucking dead.
But their story was, in a way, only beginning. Even as the band members splintered off to work on different projects (Lyxzén was the most visible with the [International] Noise Conspiracy) The Shape of Punk to Come gained new life as influential source material for the wave of post-hardcore bands that sprouted up in the early aughts. When Refused finally did reunite, in 2012, it was not in front of a handful of punks in a cramped basement, but rather for thousands at Coachella. The band has been touring on and off since, though new music always seemed just out reach. But, says Lyxzén, “the cool thing about life is there’s these weird circumstances. Things happen, other things fall into place, and then all of sudden you’re in L.A. recording a Refused record and you’re like, ‘Wait, how did this happen?’ Because two years ago it was, ‘This is never gonna happen.’ But now it seems it was the right thing to do.”
Listening to Freedom, it would seem that it was very much the right thing to do. From the explosive, off-kilter rhythmic blasts that open leadoff track “Elektra,” to the musically assaultive and lyrically raging “Dawkins Christ,” to the proto-punk barnburner riffing of “War on the Palaces,” Freedom is quite possibly the band’s most electrifying and propulsive record to date. And while it’s perhaps not as sonically schizophrenic as The Shape of Punk to Come, it is as expansive and adventurous, employing glistening synths and electro-funk rhythms (“Servants of Death”); atmospheric strings (“Useless Europeans”); and pitch-modulated vocals and electronic drums (“Old Friends/New Wars”) to wide-ranging effect. “We’ve always of the mind of, ‘If it feels different, let’s try it,” Lyxzén says by way of explanation. “The Shape of Punk to Come, that was a very eclectic, kind of weird record. We were all over the place on that one, and so we figured that, if we’re gonna do a new Refused record, we can’t be afraid of where the music’s gonna take us.”
But as much as Freedom is an example of Refused following the music, it also represents a means by which they can take that music back. “People have these expectations and beliefs that they pin on us,” Lyxzén says. “There are some fans who have lived with The Shape of Punk to Come for their entire lives and have decided that’s all we are. But now it’s time for us to decide what we want our legacy to be. And this album is a good start-over, so to speak.”