The Shape of Punk to Come

Revisiting seminal LPs from Refused and At The Drive-In

The Shape of Punk to Come

Chris Swindells on 19 January 2012

The myth goes that a dying swan will sing the most heavenly and beautiful song in the final moments before it draws its last breath. Last week two magnificent swan-like beasts came back from the dead, to parade their plumage, spread their wings and sing their heavenly song once again.

Refused were, arguably, the last revolutionary band of a generation. A band who reinvented the wheel, just to throw their new shinny super tyre away because it wasn’t going to get them to where they wanted to be fast enough, thanks.

With ‘The Shape of Punk to Come’ in 1998 Refused literally reshaped the future of a genre with one perfectly executed punk crossover album. They remained socially and politically astute with their third and final LP, but had a new game plan. The Swedish five piece had discarded the conventional rules; there were samples, violins, allusions to long form poems and bi-lingual lyrics to get your head round. The title itself was a reference to Ornette Coleman’s 1959 album ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ and everything recorded was so sonically allusive and coded, it broke the rules just to make a new set of rules.

The opus was ‘New Noise’, a grandiose mission statement for their final record. If the record was our generations’ ‘Nevermind’ then this was ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Full of battery acid strength vitriol and heart-pounding dogma. For a band introduced to music and language through their native Swedish tongue it had something of a poetic resonance. 

“It's here for us to admire if we can afford the beauty of it
Can afford the luxury of turning our heads
Adjust that thousand dollar smile and behold the creation of man
Great words won't cover ugly actions - good frames won't save bad paintings”

If the European continent was concerned with musical rules, social welfare provisions and labour markets then north of the Mexican border some punks were happy chilling with teen angst and her buddies. That was until the turn of the millennium.

Three albums in and At The Drive-In had been vastly ignored by the greater American press and, worst still, were near enough an unknown quantity in Europe. Then came ‘Relationship of Command’. All bets were off, this fire-rocket of an album distilled the hardcore essence of the Texan band into something timeless. Given to their new major label (Century) it was the most aggressive and uncompromising record of their career and gave way to a road trip like no other. Explosive live show after explosive live show, and despite strict rules to stop crowd surfing and omit moshers you wonder how anyone came out alive.

These two albums, recorded just two years and 5,000 miles apart, were to bridge the gap between old punk and new. Black Flag, Bad Brains and Minor Threat were dead, this was the new breed: wiser, harder and far more chaotic.

Like all great moments and movements in musical history it didn’t just disintegrate, it imploded. Refused recorded their third album knowing it would be their last, and as internal strains manifested in the studio, they continued on the road. The end came with a show in a fan’s basement, in some small US town. It was cut short by police and with this their fragile relationship, with the band and with each other would be over.

For At The Drive-In it was even more acrimonious with the band splitting into two factions, the album was released in September 2000 and by March 2001 it was finished. One half would become The Mars Volta, the other Sparta, and a bitter sibling-like rivalry would boil on for more than half a decade.

The two bands left many impersonators, some good, some bad and some unfortunately called The Used. Their respective records and influence remain largely untarnished, due, in large part, to their premature departure. The widely heralded return of both acts this year begins with the same dates, two shows at Coachella Festival in California. The true testament to the quality and legacy of both these records will not be their future in the recorded form but how relevant they sound live, more than a decade since they were penned.

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