Refused - The Shape of Punk to Come (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick


The Shape of Punk to Come (1998)


Every decade or so an album comes along that truly revolutionizes punk and sets the stage for the genre in the years to come. The 1970’s had The Clash’s London Calling and the 2010’s have PEARS’ Go to Prison. The 1990’s had The Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come, one of the most revolutionary and influential albums in punk history.

The Shape of Punk to Come sounds like a pretentious enough title even before you realize that the full title is The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts. But a title can only be seen as pretentious if it’s undeserved, and The Refused continue to earn the title of The Shape of Punk to Come to this day. In fact, the title isn’t actually an original one, as it was an intentional play off of the title of jazz artist Ornette Coleman’s 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come, the album that kicked off the free jazz movement. The two albums are sonically very different, but share a common purpose: to revolutionize their perspective genres and do something that breaks all the rules of, not just their genres, but of music itself. The title The Shape of Punk Come was more than just a prophecy—although it was an accurate prophecy—it was a rallying cry to punk bands everywhere to follow in The Refused’s footsteps and make music, not as a carbon copy of The Refused, but with The Refused’s sense of innovation, genre mixing, and experimentation. It was a lesson that had been handed down by The Clash in the 70’s and 80’s, but in 1998 it was up to The Refused to issue a reminder to all the new groups unconcerned with all there is to be learned.

The Refused had started out as a fairly conventional hardcore band with their debut album This Just Might Be the Truth before graduating from hardcore to experimental hardcore. The common thread through all their albums was their far-left politics, which continues onto The Shape of Punk to Come and beyond into frontman Dennis Lyxzén’s other projects that he would take up following The Refused’s breakup. (Fun fact: Up until recently, all live reviews on Punknews had a picture of Dennis Lyxzén as the thumbnail for the review.). That The Shape of Punk to Come became musically as well as politically radical can be seen as an extension of the group’s politics, as many experimental artists through history have seen their refusal to conform to typical conventions of art as a rejection of societal and political norms.

In college, I lent this album to a friend of mine who, upon returning the album, asked me “What kind of music would you call that?” I looked at him silently for a moment and said “It’s called The Shape of Punk to Come.” He said “Yeah, but that’s not punk.” It’s true that, for the casual listener, the album’s mix of hardcore, electronic, jazz, spoken word, heavy metal, and even classical doesn’t necessarily sound like punk. Then again, to one who’s versed in the history of punk, from Suicide to The Screamers, Patti Smith, to Naked City, these genres don’t sound completely out of place on what is ostensibly a punk album. In some ways, if you look back at that history of punk, The Shape of Punk to Come might seem less revolutionary, but no album had put all of this together before along with abrupt syncopated rhythms and Lyxzén’s hardcore screaming.

Lyxzén made it clear that this album was more than just music, it was a philosophy on the nature of punk and how it needed to change. As he sang on “New Noise”: “How can we expect anyone to listen,/If we using the same old voice./We need New Noise.” It’s a lesson, again, that The Clash had implicitly imparted to us, and one I’ve been ranting and raving about for years: punk needs to evolve to survive and remain relevant. (Ironically, the intro to “New Noise” has become stock music used for sporting events, to the point where I hilariously saw it used once as introductory music at a rodeo in rural Colorado.) The Refused back up their rallying cry by putting jazz rhythms under punk in “The Deadly Rhythm,” giving us the powerful and brutal classical/hardcore combination of “Tannhäuser / Derivè,” and the slow jazz/folk of “The Apollo Programme Was a Hoax.”

Since the title of the album implies that the album was going to be a big influence on music to come, it’s important to look at who the album influenced. Unfortunately, those who claim this album as an influence on their music include such banes of my existence as Linkin Park and Paramore. Lyxzén’s screaming style became almost an industry standard, and got folded into the screamo movement where it was, ironically, made part of a convention, which is exactly what this album was trying to avoid. But the real point of The Shape of Punk to Come was to inspire, not direct imitators of the album’s style, but punk bands to break out of the mold of punk and reinvent the genre, creating new styles and new definitions of what punk is. In that sense, I think The Shape of Punk to Come, whether directly or indirectly, had a huge influence on the hardcore, post-hardcore, and noise rock scenes that became so prevalent in the 2000’s with bands like The Blood Brothers, Lightning Bolt, Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower, and An Albatross who rejected the forms and conventions of punk to create something radically different.

That Dennis Lyxzén went on to form mod-punk band The (International) Noise Conspiracy should be seen, not as a betrayal of The Refused’s style or message, but a continued commitment on Lyxzén’s part to eclecticism in punk. T(I)NC was such a good band I might even like them more than The Refused. That they played mod-punk and continued to espouse communist lyrics was a most fitting irony. Meanwhile, he started a side project that began as an acoustic project called Lost Patrol, which then morphed into an apolitical pop-punk band called The Lost Patrol Band, which, for legal reasons, morphed into a Sweedish language post-punk band called INVSN. Yearning for something a little more hardcore, though, he formed the band AC4 until The Refused finally got back together. When The Refused did reunite, the bite was all gone, and their new album Freedom felt far too safe compared with The Shape of Punk to Come. But The Shape of Punk to Come remains truly one of the most important, revolutionary, and all around great albums in punk history.