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Refused Freedom Epitaph

It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Refused’s 1998 album The Shape Of Punk To Come on hardcore/post-hardcore music. With its startling technical precision, wildly unpredictable jazz influences and self-serious anti-establishment thematics (“I’ve got a bone to pick with capitalism, and a few to break!”), it blew the game wide apart.

And as the superb documentary Refused Are Fucking Dead depicts, Refused closed the book with deliciously frustrating aplomb, self-immolating in the midst of an under-appreciated American tour in late ‘98. Their final appearance was in Harrisonburg, Virginia, cops busting the show halfway through the band’s defiant anthem Rather Be Dead (“Rather be dead than alive by your oppression”). They never got to finish the song. As punk-rock folklore goes, that’s pretty fucking good.

It’s also no sin to wish that the Refused, the one who split up in the middle of Rather Be Dead; that flawless, flawed version captured in formaldehyde, was left to be just that. But it hasn’t been.

17 years on, and Freedom is a bit of a mess. The experiments in electronica and folk which enlivened the band’s masterpiece feel sloppy and dated. The stompy rawk of Old Friends/New War and Françafrique are the wrong fit, and rootin’-tootin’ party jams are fine for The (International) Noise Conspiracy, but have no place here.

But saddest of all are the tracks which sound like Refused, like opening track Elektra, or Dawkins Christ. Those blistering hi-hat cuts, the inhumanly tight interplay between palm-muted guitar and rapid snare fills, the filtered top lines building to white-hot explosions – they’re there, in spectral forms, bereft of spontaneity, too long in the making; too crisp, too self-aware. There are sparks of obvious quality, even brilliance, but the disappointment is that these tracks melt into self-parody. “The time has come, there’s no escape…” declares Elektra. Where’s the wit? Where’s the rage? Where’s it gone? Faded away with time and disillusionment.