Refused - Freedom (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review


Freedom (2015)

Epitaph Records

It’s been 17 years since The Shape of Punk To Come was released. Take a moment to let that sink in -- 17 years. In that time the innovative, genre-bending album has shot Refused into the annals of punk rock legend, and indeed has partially shaped the landscape of punk rock in its wake. Yet Refused themselves largely missed the party, having declared themselves “fucking dead” shortly after the album’s release and just before the hype surrounding their album cranked into overdrive. While Refused lay dormant, a new noise of their creation coursed through the DNA of the punk rock scene. One can only imagine how disappointing and frustrating it was to watch one’s own creation grow in fame from the sidelines, while engaged in middling side projects, kept at arm’s length from the success story of one’s own creation. And so, no doubt due to this inescapable longing, the Refused have risen almost two decades later to play a festival near you, new album Freedom in tow.

How does one follow up The Shape of Punk To Come, particularly after so much time passed? In many ways Refused face a lose/lose situation. The years have found them catapulted into the punk stratosphere, yet the members’ other projects have failed to take off in remotely the same way. Expectations for Freedom either hang unattainably high for their most ardent fans, or sag abysmally low for the more cynical. Calls of “sell-out” have rung out since hints online of a reunion began to manifest from the ether, and it’s not hard to understand why -- for a band whose image balances on a projection of integrity and anti-capitalistic ideals, the motives behind a reunion can come across as suspect. Combined with whispers of famed pop producer Shellback having assisted in the writing of two of the album’s tracks, red flags preceded Freedom almost from its inception.

The truth is Freedom is neither as heartless as the haters want to believe it, nor is it the groundbreaking follow-up that uber-fans have been dreaming of for almost two decades. It is simply a solid rock album. Shedding much of their hardcore influence, Freedom finds itself in more mid-tempo territory, a much more straightforward rock style permeating its ten tracks. The album features nifty guitar work and polished production, accompanying Dennis Lyxzén’s howled protestations against an array of worldwide injustices. While the meat-and-potatoes of the songs do tend to run together in terms of memorability, they do feature a handful of jams and catchy choruses, including those of “Francafrique” and “War on the Palaces.” “Dawkins Christ” features some genuine anger, and is perhaps the closest Freedom comes to capturing the Refused’s past incendiary nature.

The true problem with Freedom, however, is in its spirit. What truly differentiated Shape from all other bands was its defiant, ballsy attitude, both politically and musically. They did what they wanted, they said what they wanted and it was up to listeners to catch up and catch on. Whereas 1998 found Refused forging their own path through experimentation and boundary pushing, creating fresh and exciting art in the process, 2015 finds the same band afraid to stray from this very same path, and in turn the Refused often sound like any number of bands that Shape spawned. Experimentation on Freedom is relegated to the oft-treaded tricks of studio production. Many elements of Freedom feel like throwbacks rather than innovations. Album opener “Elektra” features at least three drum fills that are exactly the same drum fills found on prominent songs within Shape. “Old Friends/New War” finds the Refused dabbling in a bit of the same electronic manipulation that helped make Shape so forward-thinking, yet here it comes across as stale and played-out. For a band previously so devoted to progress, Freedom too often feels regressive, and because of this much of what made the Refused so potent in previous years falls flat. Lyxzén screams the three word chorus to “Destroy The Man” as if the words are shredding his lungs to ribbons, and yet it all feels strangely toothless.

When all is said and done, Freedom is an album of good if not entirely memorable songs. It is unfair to say there is no passion to be found on Freedom. There is no truly sacrilegious, reputation-shattering material to be found in its playtime, and the dark tidings of producer Shellback’s contributions are hardly noticeable. Yet, it would have been almost preferable for the Refused to have gone big, gone crazy, and created something with more wild ambition behind it, as opposed to the relatively conventional ten songs present. Per the old adage, it is often better to fail spectacularly than to succeed at mediocrity. As is, Freedom is just good enough to please super fans, and just watered down enough to justify the band's detractors.