"I can't wait for that moment right before the guy goes 'Can I scream?'" - Guy next to me at Refused's reunion show, New York City, 8:52 p.m., April 23
There are some bands that I just assume I will never see live, like the Clash, Jawbreaker and Fugazi. They mean so very, very much to me, and I very, very badly wish I could see these groups live. But it's not going to happen, and I'm OK with that. For the longest time, Refused was on that wish list as well. For all the dance parties my friends and I have had listening The Shape of Punk to Come and Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, for all the times I blew my voice out screaming along to "New Noise," I always did so knowing that I would never see this particular Swedish hardcore band in concert.
Then again, it's 2012. We're all gonna burn soon, and Refused is back together.
I, and a whole lot of other people, drove out to New York City to see Refused live at the 3,000-capacity Terminal 5, so many in fact that a second show had to be added. Refused imploded as its masterpiece, Shape of Punk to Come, came out. The band never really got to enjoy that album's eventual rise to legendary status, making this reunion tour also the first time the band got to truly tour the songs. And those songs are pretty damn good. A lot of hardcore bands have a rigid, mechanical approach. But not Refused circa Punk. That record has soul and funk and techno incorporated in it. And I don't mean in like a rock fusion way, but that shit sucks. But much like Nation of Ulysses, Refused found a way to give hardcore a sense of groove.
So yeah, I like that album, and so did everyone else in attendance.
Standing in the way of our communal enjoyment of that record, though, was opening act Ceremony. The group's latest, Zoo, has gotten some positive buzz, and bassist Andy Nelson has made Philadelphia a better place through Paint It Black and indie promoters R5 Productions. But I came to hear "New Noise," not second rate Joy Division rips. While Ceremony had its share of fans in attendance, a lot of people at Terminal 5 just kind of stood and stared during the band's set.
Once Ceremony got out of the way, though, everything was perfect forever and nothing hurt. Refused came out in suits, in total darkness, and built up an almost insurmountable tension via feedback before finally, mercifully launching into a crushing rendition of "Worms of the Senses / Faculties of the Skull," track one, side one of Shape of Punk to Come. The floor became a riptide, sucking bodies every which way.
After a few songs, the crowd settled down considerably, but Refused kept on plowing ahead. Frontman Dennis Lyxzén was in full Jagger-esque glory, dropping splits, cartwheels and all sorts of neat-o kicks. That dude can dance. I wasn't counting, but he might have spent half the set throwing the microphone. He even walked onto the audience, supported by some pretty stoked fans.
The whole band was tight throughout, ripping through cuts like "The Refused Party Program" and "Liberation Frequency" with precision. I wish I could drum like David Sandstöm. Sure, scientifically speaking, the best part of any Refused song is the "Can I Scream?" bit from "New Noise." But the second best part of any Refused song is that snare break Sandstöm drops into "Refused are Fuckin Dead," and I got to see that shit live.
But Refused didn't just settle for "bringing the hits." The band made an effort to treat more devoted fans by delving deeper into the vault. Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent got some love via "Rather Be Dead," "Coup d'etat" and "The Slayer." Sick of It All's Lou Koller came out for a cover of SoIA's "Injustice System." Lyxzén told some pretty funny stories in between songs, whether explaining how the band blatantly ripped off NYC hardcore in its early years or discussing how he's mellowed out with age. Every time he spoke to the audience, you could feel the warmth and gratitude the band held for the fans.
The crowd, for the most part, was grateful for every song, although it wasn't until the mini-exodus that followed "New Noise" that you could see where people were really coming from (Although admittedly, "New Noise" was without question the highlight of the night. You know why? Because it was "New Noise," and it was live). Bewilderingly, there's been some dissent on Refused's reunion. Some folks have claimed they never liked Punk, others have cried foul over the band playing larger venues. Ultimately, when it comes to reunions, all I care about is one thing: Can they play? And I don't just mean competently (Is anyone still excited by those Pixies reunion gigs?). I mean with the kind of fire and brimstone that made you care in the first place. Has-beens fake it, legends play. Fourteen years after breaking up, the members in Refused most assuredly can still play.