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Holy Hell! The Shape of Punk to Come Turns 20

Holy Hell! The Shape of Punk to Come Turns 20

Its arm of influence stretches beyond hardcore punk, with its collage of other genre interludes (such as jazz and techno) and its sharp critiques of Western ideologies.

Although Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come initially received mixed reviews, over the last 20 years it has acquired a legendary mystique—from its titular reference to Ornette Coleman’s seminal avant-garde jazz record from 1959, to its meta-aesthetic melding of musical forms and political dissent. As its title suggests, the album intended to be genre-defining, but its arm of influence stretches beyond hardcore punk, with its collage of other genre interludes (such as jazz and techno) and its sharp critiques of Western ideologies informing a lot of progressive and politically conscious bands in its wake. It was the album that made Refused, but ironically, it was also the album that undid them, as the Swedish quartet disbanded mere weeks after its release in 1998.

Yet, complete with a liner notes manifesto with ideas taken from the Situationist International and the May 1968 revolt in France, its political voice still speaks loudly and urgently at our contemporary juncture. But The Shape of Punk to Come is not merely an intellectual exercise in Marxism, with a hardcore soundtrack providing a sonic backbone. Rather, it is an album that stitches its revolutionary zeal into its hardcore fabric, the chaotic music working in step with its activist clarion calls, ultimately drawing connections between the aesthetic and the political.

The album’s signature song, “New Noise,” serves as a de facto thesis statement for the album. The song begins musically by building anticipation through a guitar and sample-heavy intro that expands, teases and scales back, until singer Dennis Lyxzén belts “Can I scream?” as the pummeling distortion and rhythms explode behind him. Lyxzén continues shouting as the music dilates heavily around him: “We lack the motion/ To move to the new beat,” a despairing cry regarding the lack of collective ability to form new social and political dynamics. Lyxzén reinforces this despair with the lines, “We dance to all the wrong songs/ We enjoy all the wrong moves,” before chanting “We’re not leading!

Framed through the aesthetic categories of music and dance, Lyxzén’s lyrics connect older forms of music with conservative and capitalist-driven politics, suggesting that some “New Noise” might break us out of complacency with forms of oppression. By the end of the song, Lyxzén screams passionately in search of a revolution that he (and by extension, we) can dance to: “The new beat! The new beat! The new beat!” This new beat emerges out of rhythms alternative to the musical and political status quo, and the band’s self-consciousness about their artistic choices as obtaining its own political content generates the album’s unique meta-aesthetic qualities.

The band’s attention to such intersecting forms of rhythm is furthered in the aptly titled “The Deadly Rhythm.” Lyrically, the song refers to the monotonous rhythms of the production line, suggesting that the means and modes of capitalist production are in fact lethal. Musically, however, the song relies on an onslaught of syncopation and furious punches of odd time signatures, all bolstered by the energetic drumming of David Sandström, offering a sonic counterpart to the linear rhythms of capitalism.

The band’s castigation of capitalist complacency is relentless throughout the album, and they continuously use the noisiness of hardcore punk to amplify their protest. In fact, the first lyrics on the album are quite blunt: “I’ve got a bone to pick with capitalism/ And a few to break” (“Worms of the Senses/ Faculties of the Skull”). Lyxzén continues his diatribe shouts: “Human life is not commodity, figures, statistics or make-believe.”

Inasmuch as the band’s critiques of capitalism are sharp, their most strident stances are about the nature of art as a political tool. For example, “Protest Song ‘68” invigorates its spirit of resistance through guitar walls of dissonance, as Lyxzén screams about creating “Art as a real threat,” and “The Refused Party Program” lashes out its pummeling hardcore, pointing to itself as “the noise of revolution.”

Twenty years after its release, The Shape of Punk to Come still has urgent political resonance. In an era of neoliberal capitalism run amok, the album supplies the necessary radical fervor to confront the complacency borne out of such regimes, not to mention revitalizing the role of art-making in political realms. By stretching the sounds of punk into other genres and by bolstering their cacophonous rhythms with political zeal, The Shape of Punk to Come still sounds fresh and politically productive today.

Despite being such a seminal album, the Swedish quartet experienced their own inner turmoil, resulting in their break-up shortly after the album’s release. Seventeen years later, the band would reform to release a long-anticipated follow-up, Freedom. The album retains some of the band’s former political “I’ve got a bone to pick with capitalism/ And a few to break” volatility, but it fails to attune its genre-bending proclivities into something memorable. That said, Refused will likely always be remembered for The Shape of Punk to Come, an album in which the band effectively called their shot in transforming not only musical genres but also social attitudes. Its meta-aesthetic bent toward crafting radical art broke with tradition, creating “the beat of a new generation.”

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