by Chad Jewett
Refused is a band of many slogans: “I’ve got a bone to pick with capitalism”; “Can I scream?”; “Rather be forgotten then remembered for giving in”. But “Rather be alive”, the late-arriving refrain from the Swedish hardcore group’s classic 1995 single “Rather Be Dead”, might be its most definitive. Watching the band in the wonderfully intimate space of the 500-capacity Sinclair in Cambridge Massachusetts, the phrase took on the scope of a mantra. Direct and affirmative, a sentiment like “Rather Be Alive” perfectly condenses the transcendent experience that is seeing Refused live, watching as the quintet — who have now fully reunited after a lauded 2012 tour in order to record the now imminent full-length Freedom — sprinted their way through the variably subtle and explosive classic that is 1998’s The Shape of Punk to Come with lean confidence. Experiencing Refused in a room roughly a quarter of the size of the spaces the group was playing on their last tour (the quintet purposely designed the tour for small rooms), one felt the giddy, uncanny sensation of trying to get one’s balance amidst a quick succession of chest-high waves: new single “Elektra” (muscular and enormous live) into “The Shape of Punk To Come” into “Refused Party Program” into “Rather Be Dead” into “Summerholidays vs. Punkroutine”. The rapidly cresting songs became the thrown bricks that Refused designed them to be in the first place.
It was jarring when Dennis Lyxzén began addressing the crowd because you suddenly realized the band had been playing for about twenty crushing minutes without pause. When Lyxzén, who is now 42 years old but has both the figure and stamina of an Olympic athlete, spoke, it was with the funny mix of charisma, joy, and anarcho-punk bite that similarly characterizes his band and their art. A nimble thinker and ideal frontman (his loose, James Brown-esque shimmy and fearless mic-cable lassos remain hypnotic), the singer-songwriter balanced self-effacing thoughts on his younger rabble-rousing years with a refusal to dismiss the progressive values that fueled them. More than once, Lyxzén entreated the crowd to keep the righteous resistance of their punk salad days from hardening into nostalgia – to paraphrase, the singer challenged the audience to ask themselves if maybe their more daring, brash, younger selves weren’t in fact right all along — “Rather Be Alive”. And sure enough, the incisive leftist politics of The Shape of Punk to Come are readily apparent in the trio of new songs the band played – the aforementioned “Elektra” (“Down in the dirt / Nothing has changed”), the anti-colonialist “Françafrique” – which, like “Elektra” became a wiry punk bruiser live – and “Dawkins Christ”, a song trenchantly critical of religious fundamentalism.
If the band’s recent work took on new, fiery dimension on stage, the evening was nevertheless defined by the still incredible Shape of Punk to Come. Touring guitarist Mattias Bärjed bit into the angled riff of “Summerholidays” (one of the evening’s highlights) with obvious elan, while later, the bop-jazz interlude of “Deadly Rhythm” was playfully replaced with a few bars of Slayer’s “Raining Blood”. Somewhere between the thundering stomp of “Refused Party Program” and the sidewinding soul-punk of “Refused Are Fuckin Dead”, one began to marvel not just at the band’s ability to keep the many spinning plates of the album’s abstract hardcore aloft (just for fun, try counting up all the time and rhythm changes in “Worms Of The Senses / Faculties Of The Skull”), but at the very real style and athleticism that broadened their live renditions past rote reproduction. Much of the credit goes to bassist Magnus Flagge and drummer David Sandström who maintain a taut, flexible layer of bombast beneath the tasking guitar parts shared between Bärjed and Kristofer Steen.
The evening’s encore consisted of “New Noise” and “Worms Of The Senses / Faculties Of The Skull” – which means that it was perfect. For the roughly 500 people in attendance, all of whom had to set land-speed records on Ticketmaster to even get into the show, which sold out in seconds, the barbed starting riff of “New Noise” arrived like some ideal clarion call, answered back with the song’s iconic “Can I Scream?” opener, for which Lyxzén, ever the populist, shared the mic. “Worms Of The Senses”, which remains likely the most challenging and complex song in a catalogue full of contenders, was just as furious and flawless, the sudden turn that bisects the songs two parts from early hardcore trudge into speed-thrash lightning was handled with the aplomb of a band who, at this point, can feel that pivot in their bones. But perhaps the night was best encapsulated by the closing words of the last song Refused played before that encore, before the ever-expanding storm of “New Noise”: “Boredom won’t get me tonight” – one last poignant statement of purpose from a band that refuses to doubt, even for a second, that punk rock might change everything.