Love It or Hate It, Refused’s ‘The Shape of Punk to Come’ Changed Punk
The iconic album turned 20 this year, and while it's still endlessly debated, time has proven its impact.
The Shape of Punk revisits some of the seminal albums turning 20 years old in 2018, tracing their impact and influence on the future of the scene.
For the past 20 years, Refused has been one of the most divisive bands in modern punk. It’s easy to see why, as the Swedish act’s 1998’s album, The Shape Of Punk To Come (A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts), was a confident, revelatory statement in every sense. The album’s title, a braggadocious, tongue-in-cheek reference to Ornette Coleman’s 1959 classic, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, called out the band’s ambitions right up top. But beyond the record’s name, the music was just as bold. Refused had always been a hardcore band, but on The Shape Of Punk To Come they integrated drum-and-bass sections, more technical riffs, bigger hooks, and plenty of other pieces that bucked back against the genre itself. Since its release, everyone has weighed in on the album, either claiming that it’s an undisputed classic or a record that is grossly overrated, overstated its ambition, or just outright sucks. Everything that could be said about The Shape Of Punk To Come has already been said, so why bother trying?
Well, for one, I swiped the title of it for this column, so I’m pretty much obligated to. But also, I spent a year writing about records that came out in the same year as The Shape Of Punk To Come and their respective effects on the future of the genre. In doing so, what I learned was that in almost every instance, each one of those albums had a similar story. A band happened upon something special and people took notice. Then, before long, other bands started borrowing from them. Once those influences wound up in the wrong hands, the innovators were disavowed by the people who first championed them.
That trend has been common in punk since the genre’s earliest days, and it’s never fully waned. People may have loved Refused or Kid Dynamite or Alkaline Trio, but once every local show had a fourth-generation clone on the bill, the original no longer seemed so novel. Those bands eventually stopped being cited as an influence, being seen less as an active participant and instead viewed as a pariah in the world they once helped foster.
When The Shape Of Punk To Come hit in 1998, no one expected these five Swedes to become punk’s pacesetter for the next decade. Their early material was chug-laden New York hardcore worship, bouncy and groovy in a way that could still easily be sold to young kids today as Turnstile with beatdown parts. 1996’s Songs To Fan The Flames Of Discontent was the band’s first coherent statement, as they traded their baggy cargo pants in for some button-down shirts that, in true 90s fashion, were still maybe a size too big. It was a sonic jump that was welcomed, and in the two years that followed, Refused ensured that they wouldn’t be remembered as an also-ran hardcore act, spoken of only by a select few. By that measure, The Shape Of Punk To Come was a massive success, as it made Refused the talk of punk circles once the record’s reach started spreading.
Twenty years later, listening to songs like “Worms of the Senses / Faculties of the Skull,” “The Refused Party Program,” and, hell, even the album’s biggest hit “New Noise,” the songs all hold up. While bands that play around with futurist themes and sounds often make records that will eventually sound dated, The Shape Of Punk To Come doesn’t suffer in that way. Even for as ubiquitous as “New Noise” became, with bands like Crazy Town, Anthrax, and The Used doling out atrocious cover versions, it still retains its bite. The song’s first explosion, where vocalist Dennis Lyxzén throws out the iconic first line, “Can I scream?,” still feels vital even now.
That’s part of the beauty of listening to The Shape of Punk to Come, in that even when you know what tricks are coming, they don't feel stale. Opener “Worms of the Senses / Faculties of the Skull” kicks off with a spoken word clip about how the classics go out of style and, inevitably, everything will. In the present, it’s easy to use that line as a way to take Refused down a peg, but that almost misses the point. They were calling their shot, and the fact that they were as accurate as they were means that the scrutiny is all the more invited. Refused knew if The Shape Of Punk To Come did what they wanted it to, they’d forever be criticized, and they embraced that reality without a second thought. It was all part of the plan. But for anyone to take notice, Refused first had to sacrifice themselves.
In 1998, The Shape Of Punk To Come was exciting, but like so many other bands of Refused’s ilk, it didn’t become an immediate phenomenon. Refused was still slugging it out on the road, playing small clubs and basements as they toured in support of the record across the United States. In the middle of that tour, in a Virginia basement, the band broke up on “stage,” one that was really just a floor, as cops flooded into the show as they played, quite appropriately, “Rather Be Dead.” As soon as they loaded out of that room, that story would begin to spread. Before long, all these second-hand tales would begin to make Refused into something larger than life. They went from one of many hardcore bands vying for a foothold in the scene to a band that existed on another plane. Rock history loves to romanticize the bands that couldn’t keep it together, often just as they were hitting their stride. And with Refused, they had all but cemented their legacy, and as the years marched on, the fact they broke up only extended The Shape Of Punk To Come’s influence.
In the ensuing years, the record became a reference point for artists from all walks of life. Be it Frank Turner’s hardcore band Million Dead—a name borrowed from a Refused lyric—doing their best take on that sound, Poison The Well recording an album with The Shape Of Punk To Come’s producers, Paramore inserting Refused lyrics into the song “Born for This,” or Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park saying “there wouldn’t be a Linkin Park without a Refused,” this little band from Sweden made a massive impact on nearly every facet of rock music. Of course, there were also bands like United Nations who wanted to offer a counterpoint to it, as “The Shape of Punk That Never Came” indicted Refused’s motivations and what, if anything, the band actually gave to the scene that bred them.
All that love, and all that criticism, was only further proof of the impression that The Shape Of Punk To Come made. Even if it’s become cooler to deny the record its place in punk history, the actual shape of modern punk music would be drastically different without Refused. For a full decade, bands used The Shape of Punk to Come as a sonic reference point, and it became a stand-in for a bigger ideological shift within the genre. It’s become a way to describe punk and hardcore music that has a forward-thinking approach, one that sees the style as an open space where anything could be possible. So while it may not be easy to find a band that accurately replicated Refused’s sound, the fact that they became the baseline for an entire artistic approach speaks volumes.
In many ways, Refused became the hinge upon which one era of punk ended and the next began. While The Shape of Punk to Come’s quality can be debated endlessly in the present day, its importance cannot be denied or overstated. But even if you’d want to, Refused already beat you to it. In “New Noise,” Lyxzén called out the fact that everything the band does is wrong, and that they are not the leaders of a new movement. Maybe it was a clever bit of future-proofing, or perhaps Refused were attuned to the backlash long before it even started, but whatever the motivation, it only strengthened their point that punk had become predictable. The hype, the hate, the endless debates, it was part and parcel of the scene and Refused made a record that poked holes in all of them.
It’s why, 20 years later, it’s still so compelling to dissect The Shape Of Punk To Come. All of the questions, clues, and answers are contained in those 12 tracks, and they can easily prop up whatever pet theory anyone may have about the record itself. Though punk would have still mutated in new ways even if the album was never released, its existence is monumental. And maybe that’s the real beauty of it; The Shape Of Punk To Come exists whether anyone likes it or not.
David Anthony is on Twitter.