Refused's 1998 album “The Shape of Punk to Come” was largely considered at the time of its release to be a high-water mark for punk rock music, and its mix of anti-capitalist themes, stop-start dynamics, techno experimentalism, jazz, found sound, and general kitchen-sinkery made the group many fans — just in time for their breakup.
As the record became enshrined as a rock classic in the years after its release, people clamored for the group to reunite. When they finally did so in 2012, hopes were raised that a new record would be in the offing. In 2015, the band put out “Freedom” — their first album since “Shape” — and it was met with disdain. That LP found Refused doing some screamy rockin', but it also saw them collaborating with a pop producer and flirting with listless, unstimulating song forms and sonic approaches. The band's fans saw the album as a huge step down from the heights of “Shape,” and it seemed that Refused wasn't capable of revisiting the muse that made them such a beloved band at the close of the '90s.
Now comes their second reunion effort, “War Music,” and with it, a return to a more aggressive style that recalls their earlier work. Sadly, however, the band has again failed to match their most popular effort. It's a better record than its predecessor, but Refused still sounds like they're chasing ghosts.
The Swedish foursome works up a maelstrom via the opening two tracks, “REV001” and “Violent Reaction.” The former is a dancey, riff-packed ditty that sees vocalist Dennis Lyxzen shouting about revolution and blood in the streets just like he used to, but the song comes off like one of those tracks from a latter-day AC/DC album that hits all the buttons the band hit on their greatest moments, yet it lacks inspiration and drive, somehow. It's all a bit Refused-by-numbers.
“Violent Reaction” is better, with its uptempo heavy-metal riffage, but the song is all bluster and no substance. Lyxzen's vocals are full of fire, but it's difficult to discern what he's on about. The band plays it all very well, with drummer David Sandstrom doing a good job propelling the proceedings, even though his drums sound thuddy and not crisp like they did in '98.
“I Wanna Watch the World Burn” is a bit of a different beast, with a sort of emo-disco feel in the chorus that is unexpected, but it's too slick and feels like an attempt at radio airplay, or at least a spot on the next EA Sports video game's soundtrack.
First single “Blood Red” is almost totally generic, with Lyxzen shrieking about how he'll remain “blood red” until he's dead over and over, yet it feels meaningless and like sloganeering rather than actual emotion.
“Turn the Cross” veers into somewhat-proggy thrash metal, and it ends up being one of the record's more interesting tracks, as a result. But it still emphasizes the album's biggest flaw: it all seems like a lot of rocking loud and saying nothing.
By the final track, the pumping “Economy of Death,” it's clear Refused decided that they had to rock — and rock hard — again, and that's what they do here. It's not a terrible effort, but it's lacking the inventiveness and unhinged creativity of their best work, and the songs end up seeming more concerned with style over substance. It's an improvement on their last LP, but that's not saying a whole lot.
Tony Bennett reviews albums for the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Album: "War Music”
Produced by: Martin Ehrencrona
Personnel: Dennis Lyxzen (vocals), David Sandstrom (drums), Kristofer Steen (guitar), Magnus Flagge (bass)