Surely everyone who has ever picked up a guitar, microphone, or drumstick has fantasised about creating an album revered as a bona fide, epoch-defining classic. The dream of having a collection of songs that are still spoken about in hushed, reverent tones more than two decades after their release is only ever realised by the most slender minority of those who harbour it. The big question that remains for the lucky few who do manage to scale that particular mountain is a straightforward one – what next?
In the case of Refused, circumstances answered the question for them, and the band was dead (fucking dead, no less) within a matter of weeks of the 1998 release of The Shape of Punk to Come, and months before it’s true greatness was properly acknowledged. For many people, throughout the noughties, Refused became a kind of unicorn. Here was this astonishing album, but there would be no opportunity to see the band actually perform the songs live, nor was there any meaningful hope of a reunion. At least, not until 2012, anyway, when the band played a handful of greatest hits reunion shows.
After crossing that particular Rubicon, it was perhaps inevitable, despite their insistence at the time, that new music would eventually follow. But the reaction to their 2015 return, Freedom, showed that people really should be careful what they wish for. Although it may have been true to form that Refused confounded expectations with Freedom, it was because the album was so pointedly lacking the fury, spontaneity, and vitality that made Shape of Punk such an essential listen.
The somewhat muted and disappointed reaction to Freedom has somewhat re-calibrated expectations for War Music. Long-standing fans are now more likely to approach the album with wary caution rather than feverish anticipation, even with phrases like “return to form” dotted through the promotional material. But sadly, even with the bar set lower, Refused still smack against it rather than sailing over it. Damn.
Nevertheless, War Music gets off to a relatively promising start, as the first two tracks are the strongest on offer. Opener “REV001” really does feel like a rekindling of the band’s old spirit, with its taut, snappy riffs topped off by Dennis screaming about revolution. “Violent Reaction” is another choppy, uptempo number with a few “woos” and the sound of the turn of a radio tuning dial thrown in. So far, so good. Both of these tracks are hooky and immediate, but there is still an unmistakable sensation that they don’t really go anywhere. This is the itch that War Music increasingly fails to scratch.
Frustratingly, whilst there are actually a fair number of satisfying riffs on offer, they are often married to considerably less inspiring passages. A reasonably exciting verse in “Blood Red” is unfortunately married to a ploddy chorus that sucks all of the momentum out of the song as a whole. When the band do try stepping on the gas, as they do on “Turn The Cross”, they sound like they are struggling to keep up. Too often, the songs simply drop the listener off back where they started, rather than taking them on any sort of journey.
This more simplified approach also seems to have extended out to the lyrical content, which is probably the biggest surprise. There seems to have been a distinct change in the tone and message that the band want to convey. The new message is most succinctly expressed in album closer “Economy of Death” – “You’re so fucked.” On “I Wanna Watch The World Burn,” we find out that it is because “of what we’ve become.” Yet rather than offering, say, a call to reclaim the airwaves or any form of Party Program, the only solution offered is violent insurrection, and one expressed in disappointingly simplistic terms, like the repeated mantra of “Rise up, right now” in “The Infamous Left.” The album’s most overtly intellectual point is just the recitation of the Marxist slogan “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” at the end of “Blood Red,” and even that feels somewhat crowbarred into place.
This year is crying out for the mixture of invention and righteous fury that drove Refused to create The Shape of Punk to Come, but they are no longer a band that can deliver it. There’s an undeniable catchiness to the songs that means sections of them will get lodged as earworms, even if you don’t especially want them to. Even completely ignoring the heritage of the band, War Music is still blighted by a frustrating lack of consistency. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the realisation that whilst Refused were once a sharp and incisive rapier blade, they are now a baseball bat. As a result, War Music has ended up being a protest album that doesn’t really seem to have anything to say. That feels like a tragically missed opportunity.
War Music is available Oct. 18 via Spinefarm Records.