Refused - Freedom - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Refused - Freedom

by Ethan Ranis Rating:6 Release Date:2015-06-29

This review is about Refused’s first new album in 17 years, Freedom, but indulge me for a moment while I talk about Muse. Muse have been compared to many other bands, with initial analogies to Radiohead eventually giving way to discussions of how they were basically knocking off Queen (and perhaps more recently George Michael).

Muse are near-unanimously loathed by music critics, but they have droves of fans and a near-unmatched ability to fill arenas in the 21st century, likely due to the combination of bombast and sing-along accessibility. Like Coldplay, they’re shameless ripoffs, but they’re at least entertaining ones. It’s probably about time they earn their own comparisons. 

But the last band I would ever have thought to compare them to would be Refused. Before the break-up, Refused sounded on the verge of a breakthrough, blending rampaging hardcore with styles ranging from 90s electro to jazz on landmark record The Shape of Punk to Come. When they reunited in 2012, Refused were still on peak form and capable of electrifying an audience with the lightning-fast changes and fiery (if blunt) political rhetoric from their past albums.

Yet the Muse comparison was the prevailing thought that came to mind throughout Freedom. All the hallmarks are there – over-compressed, blown-out production that clearly shoots for the stadium, unsuccessful experiments with technology that others have used better (the chop-and-screw on ‘Old Friends, New War’); the distracting choral backing vox and production tics (kids' choir on ‘Francafrique’, weird grunts on ‘Destroy the Man’); the semi-danceable but mostly ponderous riff track (‘Servants of Death’); the frequently cringeworthy ‘revolutionary’ lyrics that are frustratingly nonspecific (pick a track, any track). Refused’s long-awaited comeback is basically a Muse album.

It’s hard to figure out where to place blame here. It’s easy to finger the ouster of guitarist/synth-whiz Jon Brannstrom as the crux of the problem, given the uninspired guitar licks here. However, it’s certain that part of the fault lies with lead singer Dennis Lyxzen, who is probably responsible for the vocal arrangements and lyrics, and did better when he was less articulate but more impassioned. 

Drummer David Sandstrom is clearly still capable of busting out headspinning fills (see any one of the whiplash tom fills on ‘Dawkins Christ’), but spends too much of the album in a plodding midtempo stomp. Bassist Magnus Flagge is just about the only one who puts in a consistent showing throughout the album, but the mix frequently drowns him out entirely.

First single and lead track ‘Elektra’ is the exception that proves the rule. Working their way through a tricky time-signature and with Lyxzen howling like he’s on fire, this is the closest the album comes to channeling the furious energy that used to animate Refused.   

‘Dawkins Christ’ sounds enough like a combination between latter-day emo and metal to be an Avenged Sevenfold track, but the band makes it work partially through sheer fury. ‘War on the Palaces’, meanwhile, is near-ruined by its cheesy production but has an effective singalong chorus.

Freedom isn’t without its highlights, but there are too many missteps here and too much reaching for the arena to work. Any follow-up to The Shape of Punk to Come was bound to come with crushing expectations, but this is perhaps more disappointing. With this album, it appears Refused are no longer trying to lead the way, but just to please the crowds.

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