Four years later, it’s no longer a reunion — Refused are reborn as something new
It’s really hard to find a concert that was better, and more well-attended, than the 2012 show at the Warfield that marked the triumphant return of the Swedish hardcore giants known as Refused. Alumni and newcomers from all scenes of loud, angry music were found wandering the crowd en masse, and the band themselves, fresh off of their first gargantuan performance at Coachella, took the tinier stage they were offered and absolutely demolished any doubts held about their ability to still blow the minds of their audience. To this day, every time Refused has returned to the Bay Area, they acknowledge that performance as the one that actually convinced them to stay in the game. Singer Dennis Lyxzén regularly has stated that the gig brought them back down to earth, from the lofty, uncertain heights of trying to conquer the main stage down in Indio, and the energy expressed in every one of Refused’s shows since that time has always seemed to be a display of gratitude for that night. The question, then, was whether or not Refused would treat the early ’10s as their victory lap back in the race, or actually return with a new path to follow as an active band creating new art.
The answer, of course, is the latter — and they show no signs of slowing down.
For a band like Refused, it’s important for the night to start with loud sounds and furious energy to get your blood pumping, so it was a great pleasure to witness an exciting new act that opened the show: Whittier, CA’s own Plague Vendor, a ruthlessly chaotic four-piece that blended together everything from snarling hardcore to Cramps-esque rockabilly and even Dead Kennedys’-style surf-punk in a mindbendingly fast set. While the entire group was marvelously animated, the rabid antics of singer Brandon Blaine absolutely stole the show; rarely was there a moment that he stopped moving, hurtling across the stage in a blur of skinny limbs and sweat-drenched hair, a man possessed by the spirits he summoned with his croon-to-a-scream vocals. Blaine mentioned his gratitude for being able to open for Refused, whom he stated to be a prime influence on the group, and it absolutely showed in his movements onstage.
After the face-melting assault of Plague Vendor, there was time for a necessary calm before the oncoming monsoon, and the ensuing space was occupied by The Coathangers, an Atlanta three-piece that delved even further into the surfier, bluesy roots that Plague Vendor had all but teased into existence. Despite not being as manically exuberant as the men before them, the women of The Coathangers were nevertheless powerful and snarling in their aesthetic and sound alike. Guitarist Julia “Crook Kid Coathanger” Kugel traded lead vocal duties with bassist Meredith “Minnie Coathanger” Franco, with a few songs being led by drummer Stephanie “Rusty Coathanger” Luke, who sang just as fiercely as she smashed her skins. If the energy wasn’t cranked up to 11, their onstage chemistry absolutely made up for it; none of the trio seemed to hog the spotlight for too long, and the balance made the set very entertaining.
Once the lights finally fell and heralded the approach of the headlining act, many long minutes past in stark shadows before the men of Refused took the stage. However, it only took the first two notes of “Elektra”, the first single from Refused’s newest effort Freedom, to set the stage for how insanely explosive the show was to be. Within seconds, singer Dennis Lyxzén had turned into a crimson blur, his body taut as if locked in the throes of electrocution, the cord of his microphone a deadly whip that matched the hue of his bright red duds. The other members of the band followed suit, and the small stage of the Fillmore could barely contain their energy. This was a band that was absolutely ready to utterly annihilate any perception of them being a thing of the past; they were ferocious, wide-eyed, and sonically pummeling, and the crowd ate up every moment of the glorious display.
Nearly a year ago to the day, Refused returned to San Francisco after a 2-year hiatus, with promises of new music and changes to their lineup (longtime guitarist Jon Brännström was no longer part of the group). Their show at the Great American Music Hall was proof that the changes had absolutely not dismantled them, and they were hungry to display their new work to their fans. However, this performance at the Fillmore was far closer in status to the legendary Warfield show; if there had been any indication that Refused were still getting their footing and readying themselves for the next round, it was utterly lost in the brilliant miasma of hardcore chaos that they unleashed on this Thursday night. Touring guitarist Mattias Bärjed tore into the set with marvelous chemistry, as if he had always existed next to the founding members of the group, and all five musicians seemed as pleased to be onstage as they were stunningly concordant.
How passionate, then, were the fans who showed up the evening before Memorial Day weekend to celebrate their hardcore heroes? So much so that, halfway through the set, Lyxzén and drummer David Sandström acknowledged the thunderous chant of “Pump The Brakes!” that bellowed from the back of the room. After a few moments of teasing the crowd — “That’s a really old song, are you sure you guys know all the words?” — Lyxzén and Sandström exchanged amused shrugs, and the band tore into the song, the opening from their debut This Just Might Be…The Truth, and the crowd exploded with joy — and did, in fact, sing along. Returning to old material put fresh smiles on the faces of band and audience alike, and the rest of the set was dealt out with a dash of humor added to the palate, with Lyxzén, Bärjed, Sandström, bassist Magnus Flagge and guitarist Kristofer Steen all more playful in their antics as the night went on.
After their encore break, Refused returned to the stage with a 3-song fusillade to close the evening. Before the second number of the encore — their massive hit “New Noise”, which knocked the crowd into a writhing, roaring mass — Lyxzén gave his final speech of the evening, stating that while he had been far more obsessed with crushing capitalism and fighting the system before today, it was now 2016, and “apparently, we still need to talk about feminism…we still need to talk about gender…and we, as men, we need to do BETTER!” His closing remarks, while seeming to come out of nowhere, were extremely well-spoken and precise, and the audience acknowledged them with cheers, raised fists, and declarative shouts of support. For me, it finally answered the question of what “New Noise” was about, as Lyxzén introduced the song as being about that message, and so many more of the words now ring even stronger than before. It was truly, utterly moving; it was the first time that I could absolutely identify with an anthem of protest, a call to action, a loud voice calling out to allies who could not be heard above the din, and it was within a song I have loved for nearly two decades.
In the post-concert euphoria that followed, I had the chance to speak to bassist Magnus Flagge, who stated that the most difficult thing that Refused dealt with in the last twelve months had been the release of Freedom and the ensuing criticism that followed it — mostly from news outlets expecting another record like their landmark album The Shape Of Punk To Come. Refused has never been about a particular sound, instrumentation, arrangement, or genre; if they are consistent about anything, it is about continuing to evolve their sound, continuing to spread their messages of unity and the need for change, and the utterly shocking level of energy in their live performances. In the year of 2016, Refused have shrugged off the stigma of being another reunion, back for a last hurrah and eager to scrape up some cash along the way; here you will only find a brand new band, wide-eyed and starving for carving their path in the world — and absolutely leveling anything that stands in their way.
On this tour, Refused are selling VIP meet-and-greet packages with all profits going to the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a charity organization that aids seafaring refugees. You can read more about MOAS at their official website: https://www.moas.eu/
Additional photos from the show below. All photos are © 2016 Jonathan Pirro.