Let’s be as transparent as possible with this: you shouldn’t listen to the new Refused album, Freedom, expecting the band to pick up where The Shape of Punk to Come left off. That would have been a tall order after two or three years, but after seventeen? No way. They’re a different band now, and their sense of extremity—whether in sheer aggression or genre-blending experimentation—has dulled with age. Sure, they’ve still got a healthy amount of anger, but they’re tamer and more muted in presenting it to the world.
Don’t take that to mean Refused 2.0 is a total waste of time, though. Throughout its 40-odd minutes, Freedom proves to be a listenable album with its fair share of highlights. Songs like “Elektra,” and “Dawkins Christ” attack with meaty, mathematical riffing and pure, unkempt rage from vocalist Dennis Lyxzén; for all the talk of the band’s evolution—more conventional song structures, collaborations with pop producer Shellback—there’s nothing to suggest the band can’t still dig their teeth in when they put their mind to it.
But the lighter fare also has its moments. “Old Friends / New War” opens with some strange, low-octave vocal effects, yet quickly turns into one of the catchiest things here thanks to its crisply-strummed acoustic guitar verses and foot-stomping rhythm. Later tracks like “Françafrique” and “War on the Palaces” bring funky guitar riffs and horn parts into the band’s newly-streamlined mix. (The former handles these so well that you almost forget about its singularly silly lyric: “Murder murder murder murder murder murder / Kill! Kill! Kill!”)
Trouble is, there’s not much more from here on out that really meets the same standards. The rest of the album tries, but fails, to capture the math-punk fire that became the band’s signature in their first incarnation. (Whither ex-guitarist Jon Brännström?) Instead, as we see on a song like “Servants of Death,” things just end up sounding kind of bland.
What really holds Freedom back, though, is that too much of the album sounds like it’s been cut from the same sonic cloth. Sure, the band throws in the occasional stylistic shift, but each song ends up feeling like a not-all-that-unique means to the same end. The beauty of Shape was its unpredictability; you never quite knew where the next musical curveball—be it a jazzy interlude, a spoken-word overdub or a random, syncopated drum pattern—was coming from, or when it would hit you. It felt like stepping into a boxing ring blindfolded. It felt dangerous.
Ultimately, it’s nice to have these guys back. And if you approach Freedom with an open mind, it can be an enjoyable enough listen. But if you’re looking to be ripped a new asshole by the awe-inspiring, transcendent punks we knew from the ’90s, keep looking. That Refused still is fucking dead.
Keep it heavy,