If anyone has ever had a case of followup blues, it’s Refused. The Swedish rockers broke up shortly after releasing 1998’s The Shape of Punk To Come. The album has lived up to its name, standing the test of time as a standard-bearer for post-hardcore. This explains the polarized reception given to the band’s 2015 comeback album, Freedom. While fans naturally compare releases, the best option for Refused was to simply do what he band wanted. Where Freedom toned things down a bit, War Music doubles down on aggression. Relatively speaking, the album is the sound of punk as we know it, but the fiery radicalism Refused displays is undeniable.
War Music is one of the few positive examples of the Trump era producing quality punk rock. Perhaps that’s because Refused bore witness to the many deaths of rock as protest music. Opener “Rev001” seems to come as a flamethrower to the embers left by pop-punk. Simplified more than ever, the band’s chops remain in the spotlight. From the old world jazz sample of the intro to its savage chorus, Refused’s passion demands for an anti-authoritarian crusade. The same goes for single “Blood Red.”
“Time for some militance/ The fight will come down to us and them,” vocalist Dennis Lyxzén wails, making the band’s intent crystal clear. Refused clearly hasn’t lost sight of its roots in far-left politics—not to mention its propensity for groovy riffing. Drawing from its origins in DIY hardcore, the band works in some solid hooks into the feral grooves. “Damaged III” epitomizes this golden balance as a poignant commentary on corrupt gender norms. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, founding guitarist Kristofer Steen and newcomer Mattias Bärjed channel what Refused is at its raw core.
Rather than try to top The Shape’s sonic imagination, Refused focuses on playing hard and angry. War Music plays out like 10 irate letters to everyone that pisses off the band. “Violent Reaction” wears its theme on its sleeve, as does progressive anthem “The Infamous Left.” Whether these songs work depends on whether they stick with you. The concept and execution are straightforward. From the former’s electrifying time changes to the latter’s bodacious blast of melodic hardcore, the band’s technical abilities still pop up in all the right places.
On the surface, this blunt version of Refused might come off reductive. “I Wanna Watch the World Burn” might seem a tired cliché of punk rock nihilism, but Refused informs the song’s jagged chords and stomping four-on-the-floor percussion with thoughtful philosophy. More than an inflammatory statement, the song speaks to the need to cast the past aside in order to move forward. War Music’s lyric sheet is peppered with quotes from the likes of Pussy Riot and Oscar Wilde for a reason. Refused approaches the album with maturity and that carries the music’s abject simplicity at key moments.
Surprisingly melodic vocals interweave throughout “Malfire” in its detailed half-time grooves and explosive bounce chorus. The song’s central riff is vaguely reminiscent of underground ’80s metal, but the overall vibe is entirely in line with Refused’s established sound. The mathy riffing and David Sandström’s syncopated, propulsive drumming of “Turn the Cross” will please older fans, before it barrels into a pit-starting breakdown centered on the call to action: “If you can hear this, you’re a weapon.”
Bassist Magnus Flagge reprises his secondary roll as a cellist on “Death in Vännäs,” adding a subtle boost to the song’s relatively meat-and-potatoes arrangement. Refused at its most primal is far from boring. Closer “Economy of Death” even incorporates tremolo picking and double-bass drumming—like an anarchist punk take on Swedish death metal. “It’s only a mushroom cloud away,” Lyxzén warns at last, highlighting the world’s precarious position.
In essence, War Music is Refused. Whether it shapes punk or not, it’s a hell of a listen for those saddened by the docile nature of modern punk rock. The band already pulled off art-punk weirdness, now it just wants to make as much noise as possible in defiance to the powers that be.