Rise Like the Fenix [sic]: On Seeing Refused in Lawrence, Kansas
On the 22nd of May this year, Edgar and I went with a friend (Erik, who played the Sheriff in the Crooked Man) to see the Refused play with Bleached and the Hives; while there we met with Alex (who is hard at work on the next episode,) and his fiancee. We hadn't even known that Bleached was there, much to Erik's delight, and I've never really listened to the Hives. The sole draw for me, in short, was Refused.
After the fact, I can now say that, while I don't really share the same concerns, on an emotional level I can understand why people attend church or big tent revivals. I don't really dance, but I engaged in a moderate amount of rhythmic (or at least spasmodic) movement.
I had never been to a show at Liberty Hall. Early in my relationship with Edgar, we had gone to see a movie there, and I had in my mind a somewhat cramped movie theater, but it proved a spacious and satisfying venue, with artwork on the walls that brought to mind a mid-century throwback to William Blake, stars and swirls on every surface that wasn't dark wood.
When the show started, they launched in to “Rather Be Dead” – a song that turns from self-destructive to hopeful, much like a personal expression of the band's project – and went through a number of standards before the singer, Dennis Lyxzén, entered his first talk (he joked at one point, that their next tour would feature an hour of him talking followed by an hour of music,) welcoming us and noting that “There’s a reason we’re not at the fucking discotheque.”
(An aside [the first of many]: despite what I wrote previously about Disco, I feel that Kansas City's The Pitch missed the point of this statement in their otherwise quite good article by protesting “Discos have long provided a home for marginalized communities, and they also helped produce the revolutionary genres of funk and hip-hop” failing to understand that the Refused, as a Swedish band, have a different context that they're operating from. When someone from continental Europe mentions a “discotheque” they are not talking about disco – they're talking about a night club.)
The band themselves were older – of course they are. This band was formed when I was five years old and I'm out of my twenties now. It's been a long ride for them. They eschewed the denim and leather of younger punks, projecting a very considered image. Lyxzén came out in a three-piece suit, seemingly in drag as a banker, though this could possibly just be my projection. He kept the full suit on through the majority of the performance. The rest of the band seemed just as put-together, wearing dark colors and subtle patterns – unlike the Hives, who came out in white tuxedos, engaging in a mock-narcissistic kayfabe, the Refused seemed to be suggesting that they were here for business, though there were subversions to this.
More than other mid-size shows (and this, at about 1,000 people I believe, qualifies as the upper end of that,) Refused put on a show that suggested a deep connection to their audience. While they didn't really make use of humor, they did engage in play at points, with Lyxzén swinging his microphone and wandering into the audience, people holding the cord up so that it wouldn't get trampled, or guitarist, Kristofer Steen, breaking into the middle of a song where an electronica line would normally lie to play a shaky rendition of the intro to Slayer's “Raining Blood.”
The whole experience felt like something awful had been ripped away. I experienced a mind-opening clarity I haven't since I took a Freshman philosophy class (a joke. I like to think I'm only a fraction as insufferable these days.)
Edgar commented to me, later, that they were glad to join Erik and I, as it was clear from our behavior and what we said that this was an overwhelmingly meaningful experience.
It's inevitable that the things that we encounter during early adolescence shape our taste for life, and shape who we are as people. In 1999 and 2000, thanks to a variety of forces, I encountered Refused and their then-final album The Shape of Punk to Come. The band had broken up just shortly after releasing it, appropriating one of the track titles as the header for their final press release. Because of how maturation works, it's always going to be entwined with and interconnected with the other things that I was growing familiar with at that time, regardless of how little they had to do with each other – namely the Japanese animated show Neon Genesis Evangelion, the American hardcore band Boysetsfire, and the Dark Tower books by Stephen King.
As a side note: when I read that last press release, “Refused are Fucking Dead”, on the internet, it struck me as insane. It speaks of burning museums and calls the very idea of “culture” a “great lie.” I'm not going to do a deep read on it, but I think it is worth reading. This piece was the first place I encountered the names Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida, and Debord.
I had discovered an incredibly meaningful piece of artwork less than two full years after it became impossible to experience the music in the way that music is meant to be experienced. This is a running theme in my life – see my experiences enjoying Slint (referenced previously in my piece on collaboration,) and the fact that I didn't discover my favorite author, Roger Zelazny, until a dozen years after his death, when I burned through all of Lord of Light in the back seat of the car on a trip to Chicago for my brother's college graduation, or the fact that I never picked up anything substantial by Mark Fisher until the summer after his death. Great works and meaningful art, for me, have always been posthumous.
So attending this show in Lawrence – I was vaguely aware that Refused had reformed for a tour, but it didn't register for me – was like witnessing a resurrection. When we left, Edgar suggested I write this piece, and I said that I would, “as soon as my bones stop vibrating.” Right now, I'm not sure they ever completely will.
It is tempting to make arguments that Refused are not a punk band – the aesthetic approach they take is more akin to jazz or progressive rock than it is to punk's idealized three chords and the truth. Indeed, the title of their last album is a reference to Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959). They have a heavy theoretical emphasis that they wear openly, which divides them from the somewhat reluctantly-admitted and pragmatic approach to intellectualism that you find in Anglo-American punk (as an aside, and I love my asides, it seems to me that Continental European punks have an easier time openly engaging with intellectual topics. The tradition of proletarian intellectualism is something that Americans – and possibly the British? I don't know enough to say – seem to have almost completely lost.)
It is tempting to make that pronouncement (that Refused are not a punk band) but I think that is privileging technique over aesthetics: while they abandoned the stripped-down lo-fi approach popular with (what seems like) a large majority of punk bands, they do so in a way that feels like an evolution, or possibly a reclamation, instead of a true abandonment, and they do at times return to their roots (Compare “Summerholidays vs. Punkroutine” to the track that precedes it, “The Deadly Rhythm”.)
Listening to this album, I feel that you could look at it as a theoretical text articulating a particular worldview, or view-of-the-world-at-the-moment, that is very rooted in Situationist thinking. In the worldview put forward, the band contrasts the “New Beat” (Debord's “Spectacle” seen through the lens of music – stereotypically vapid pop music) and the “New Noise” (an antidote to the Spectacle; an attempt to reclaim Punk as Situationist détournement of music, rerouting our attention and thinking to deprive the Spectacle of power and control, thereby serving as a route to freedom.) My own concept of the Utopian Impulse is, perhaps, a degenerate version of the same idea – or perhaps a refinement. The Situationists, at least, have an older pedigree.
But at the same time, there's the suggestion that the current aesthetic regime must die so that the future can be born: compare the title track “The Shape of Punk to Come” immediately follows “Refused are Fucking Dead”, which all follow on from a song titled “Refused Party Program” – there seems to be a significance to this, though it could just be secondary to the content of the individual songs. In the press release/manifesto, the band wrote:
So why does Refused have to die to be able to rise from the ashes like the Fenix [sic]??? It is impossible to take part of a revolutionary program when every aspect of existence has to be projected as entertainment and music, a tradition that both in expression and creation has been dead for far too long. We were hoping that we could be the final nail in the coffin of the rotten cadaver that was popular music, but unfortunately the reification was too big for us to succeed with our feeble attempts to detour this boring discourse.
At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist or a nutjob, it's possible that this was all part of the program (it seems to me that the Situationists, unlike many of the strains that derive from Marxist thought, has room for esotericism and magical thinking – perhaps the band Refused could be read as a chaote Dionysian figure. But, then again, I'm only peripheral on that strand of thought. I'll leave that for someone else to tackle, unless no one does before I learn more.)
This is too much speculation. I'm engaging in apophenia when I should be writing criticism: a question lingers for me – why does an album old enough to legally drink in the United States feel so urgent and prescient? Is this just a sort of retromania on my part, or is there something else there? Are we so out of ideas that a bunch of 30 somethings lose their shit while a Swedish man swings a microphone in an unsafe fashion?
It's possible – as I mentioned, the things we're exposed to in adolescence become a part of who we are, and when they reemerge after years and years, we greet them as signs of belonging. Eric Sundermann had a great piece in VICE on this, though about Taking Back Sunday instead of Refused or a similar band. That's possibly the personal answer. Mark Fisher, in Ghosts of My Life, talked about how we've strip-mined the world of novelty, and are witnessing the slow cancellation of the future. That's possibly the wide-angle answer. Taken together, they form a combination that explains things, suggesting that we're stuck in an affective regime formed by our youth because there is nothing genuinely new, because we have (or someone has) arrested the forces that create new things and this compels us to reside inauthentically within the shell of who we were, but while I can't shake the feeling that this is the case I don't feel that it's the whole answer. I believe that there is something else going on here. Granted, this is possibly just me not wanting to disappoint the ghost of Mark Fisher, but I do legitimately believe that something else is going on.
For me, the answer is twofold:
To an extent, it's an archaeological thrill of sorts, with apologies to the band in question. Refused was influential on many of the bands I listened to and saw live, the afterglow of their spinning out illuminating the sonic landscape in a way that other musicians did not. My encounter with Roger Zelazny, mentioned above, was much the same way for literature, though it happened at a later time. Hence the intertwining.
And while that's certainly part of it, I think that another part is that Refused represents a lost logic of the arts for me. Other bands certainly drew inspiration for the surface-level aesthetics, and a few even extended it, but it seems to me that there was a way of thinking behind the aesthetic that few others managed to apprehend clearly, much less implement.
By definition I think this is something I can't see clearly, let's be frank there, but I'm going to venture a guess.
I think that that there was something functional to the way that they approached music. Instead of thinking that a song had to feature certain elements, or fit a certain mold, they looked at the tools that they had available to them, even those commonly eschewed by hardcore and punk musicians, and they thought – in that way that led Swedes in ages past to invent Viking Longships and hard alcohol made from wood pulp – “Ah, yes, but what do we want it to do?”
In short, they pick up the tools that are present in the culture – Punk, Jazz, Electronica, Classical music, sampling – and they attack their problem from every angle, creating a new aesthetic regime to solve a new problem, and because it's the same people behind each new aesthetic regime, an authentic through line emerges, tying together all of the disparate pieces and connecting them into one Frankensteinian (Post-Structuralist?) whole, where the discontinuities and difference in style form a basis for the organically-emerging beauty of the whole project.
I am focusing too much on the album I love, on the recorded artifact, on the documentation.
I wanted to write this about the show, and I'm getting caught up in aesthetic theory.
I will do so to the best of my ability.
While the album itself is called The Shape of Punk to Come, there is also the song “the Shape of Punk to Come” – it's late on the album, and they played it late in the show. They played it at the show, and it was electric. I felt it physically when they started it, even though it isn't quite as enshrined for me as some of their other songs – the mechanical regularity of the drums near the beginning doesn't quite work for me (I believe in recording, they actually used a drum machine for it. There is something kind of nice in the effect of a hardcore song overtaking and swallowing up an EDM song, but that's possibly just the fact that I like Hardcore more than EDM). I'm going to attempt to describe the affective experience I get from it, especially the guitar line that occurs at just the beginning of the midsection of the song. I don't know how to describe the actual sound of it in technical terms. I can only do so in emotional and experiential terms.
This guitar line, played by Kristofer Steen, seems to suggest motion in a way that music (especially contemporary music) doesn't normally suggest: not forward motion, but an upward, rising motion. It suggests an upswelling, an overflowing. At the same time, it suggests a certain circularity of movement, the way an engine might involve a circularity, like the starter motor for a machine to make the world move. It is an auditory sketch of some force that I have tried to capture in writing before, but perhaps it's simply something that needs an abstracted performative medium to communicate.
Now that I think about it, there's something machinic about the first portion of the song (my mind wants me to start talking Deleuze and Guattari – I'm resisting the urge as best I can) before dropping off into an almost plaintive quiet portion in the middle, like a tendon left as a connection after an inexpert amputation. After this quiet stretch, it launches into the second half of the song, where the machinic quality begins to seep in again (the following track, “Tannhäuser / Derivè”, is a counterpoint to this and was sadly not played – but understandably so, as they lack a violinist to the best of my knowledge. In any case, I said I was talking about the show, not the album.)
I know that most people reading this will probably have gone to at least one large musical performance, and probably even a performance that meant a great deal to them. If you haven't, I hope you get the chance. I'll try to describe it.
In a very real sense, it's like the feeling of being seized by something larger than yourself. Not so much that you're surrounded by friends, or that you're connected to some higher power, but in the sense that something from the back of your brain begins to overflow. Whatever it is trickles down your spine like a flow of cold water. It feels like your blood pressure is spiking and the walls start throbbing: but unlike a panic attack, where you feel like you're going to be crushed, here you feel like you're riding the wave, being carried along in this outpouring.
Your heart begins to beat in time with the drum and you're carried off. If there's a time to shout or clap, you find yourself doing so in unison with a thousand other throats and hands. And when you do, you find yourself pulled into it, you find that you, yourself, are part of that wall of sound. You've become, temporarily, briefly, minutely, a collaborator and a part of the aesthetic experience. While it will never be yours the way it is for the band or the writer or even the sound engineer (if these people are separate,) it will always be a part of you.
During that show, those songs, which helped shape who I am, became a part of me. Because of that, I feel that the trajectory of my thoughts has been altered – bent around something and shifted off to ride out on a new vector.