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Essentials: Refused's The Shape of Punk to Come (1998)

Essentials: Refused's The Shape of Punk to Come (1998)

Every Thursday, Bandwagon throws back to a seminal album of yesteryear for our younger readers to explore and for our older readers to reminisce. We’ll be picking out some absolutely essential records, spanning all genres and all time, and discussing their significance from a modern day perspective — whether they were immediate hits or made an impact only decades after its release.


If you're looking for the quintessential 90s' punk (or hardcore for that matter) album, The Shape of Punk to Come is not it. Indeed, their 1998 masterpiece doesn't even sound like any of Refused's earlier work. The Swedish band consciously threw out the rule book and very artfully took the essence of hardcore punk and turned it on its head for this album. Refused were visionaries in a sense because they didn't only see the structural limitations of their chosen genre on a technical level, they felt that in a larger philosophical context as well.

As their liner notes explains, continuing to package their anti-establishment sentiment with a sound that's become decidedly establishment (pop-punk was one of the most popular mainstream genres in the late-90s) would be deeply hypocritical. As such, they wanted to change to the game by experimenting with cousin strains like post-hardcore and post-punk, alongside more radical explorations in drum & bass, techno and even jazz. In fact, their album title is a direct allusion to Ornette Coleman's 1959 avant-garde jazz album The Shape of Jazz to Come. The result was an album that was still undeniably punk in ethos, but wildly out of the box in its execution.


"The track that really distilled what they were going for was their seminal single 'New Noise', and it remains Refused's defining statement till this very day. Beginning with an absorbing intro passage that lasts well over a minute, its a track that takes it's time to build before careening off at just the right moment (Can I scream!?). That frenzied blast-off is one of music's most singularly thrilling moments of all-time, and the aftermath of that is pure, fist-pumping exhilaration."


Refused's inventive take on American hardcore tropes cannot be understated, but what was doubly impressive was the production sheen they coated it with (they are Swedish after all), because this LP sounds absolutely massive. Songwriting-wise, The Nation of Ulysses and The Dillinger Escape Plan were obvious reference points for them, but thematically, their inspirations were as varied could be.

'Protest Song '68' lifts its opening lines from the beginning of Henry Miller's novel Tropic of Cancer, 'The Deadly Rhythm' quotes Bo Didley's R&B classic 'I'm A Man' while 'Worms of the Senses / Faculties of the Skull' is an un-subtle allusion to a line from Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. As you can see, their literary and musical influences are encouragingly broad for The Shape of Punk to Come, which is why this album sounds as invigorating (both intellectually, and on a more primal level) as it does.

 

The track that really distilled what they were going for was their seminal single 'New Noise', and it remains Refused's defining statement till this very day. Beginning with an absorbing intro passage that lasts well over a minute, its a track that takes it's time to build before careening off at just the right moment (Can I scream!?). That frenzied blast-off is one of music's most singularly thrilling moments of all-time, and the aftermath of that is pure, fist-pumping exhilaration. Dennis Lyxzén's lyrical nihilism and ear-splitting delivery is a wonderful constant throughout, but its on songs like 'Liberation Frequency' and title track 'The Shape of Punk to Come' where they really annihilate.

Sadly though, the intense recording and touring process for this marvelous LP also led to the band's dissolution in the immediate aftermath of its release, with band members citing creative depletion and emotional conflict. But as unceremoniously as Refused's first run as a band ended, their legacy will always be centered around The Shape of Punk to Come. Combining ambient ingress, jazz breakdowns and techno interludes alongside Refused's requisite capitalism-smashing hardcore heaviness, this vital album is unlike anything we've ever heard in punk history, and it's unlikely that we'll get another punk album this ambitious or ingenious any time in the near future.


If you like this, you'll like: The Dillinger Escape Plan's Calculating Infinity, The Nation Of Ulysses' 13-Point Program To Destroy America, Nomeansno's Wrong

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