It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
If you had told Refused 14 years ago that The Shape Of Punk To Come would be counted as one of the seminal documents of the post-hardcore era, they probably would have laughed and said, "Get lost" in Swedish. The reason is simple: no one really cared about Shape when it was released. The band played their final show in a basement in 1998, and though there weren't blogs to report it at the time, the news probably would have barely registered outside the punk underground anyway.
So how did the album achieve Pinkerton-type levels of critical acclaim? Part of it is due to the fact that the band broke up shortly after its release, which added to the mystique surrounding this manic group of sharply-dressed Swedes. But it's also impossible to discount just how groundbreaking Shape is on a sonic level. Working techno beats into a hardcore song may sound terrible in theory (a theory proven fact when Brokencyde starting doing it a decade later), but Refused layered sequencing into songs like "New Noise" elegantly, showing there was still room for creativity in a genre that had become defined by certain stringent hallmarks.
From the extended sine-wave break during "The Refused Party Program" to the avant-garde experimentalism of "The Apollo Programme Was A Hoax," the album nastily flashes the group's myriad influences. Jazz, radical politics and fashion all figured into the songs on Shape. The Beatles may have asked if we wanted a revolution, but Refused showed us what it would sound like.
On the surface, it may not seem like a jazz icon could have more than a tenuous connection to a group of Swedish noisemakers. But it's no coincidence that Refused's album title is so similar to that of Coleman's breakthrough. Songs like "Lonely Woman" may sound relatively tame by today's standards, but back in 1959 the album's very existence helped usher in the nascent free-jazz movement and helped loosen up the formerly strict rules of what jazz is and isn't. When you think about it, what's more punk than that?
Twenty-five years before Dennis LyxzÃ©n announced, "Refused Are Fucking Dead," Rob Tyner of the MC5 commanded the audience to "Kick out the jams, motherfucker!" The profanity isn't the only commonality between those statements. When MC5 exploded onto the Detroit scene with their politically-driven proto-punk, nothing like them existed. The frenetic energy of the music and the group's steadfast dedication to radical politics made them one of the most important rock acts to come out of America during one of the nation's most volatile times. Could the MC5 have existed if things in the government were perfect? No, but that's what makes their music so incendiary, and proves that the spirit of dissent is a potent motivator.
The cover art for Plays Pretty For Baby alone is evidence that Refused aped their fashion sense and aesthetics from the pioneering D.C. post-hardcore act Nation Of Ulysses — to say nothing of both acts' love of French Situationist scribbling. Musically, Nation Of Ulysses shared Refused's affinity for incorporating sonic touchstones from various genres into their compositions, and their live performances were more like syncopated religious sermons than a typical punk show. If you need more evidence of Nation Of Ulysses' influence, consider the fact that the latest edition of Plays Pretty includes a song called "The Sound Of Jazz To Come," which was also inspired by Coleman's influential 1959 collection.
Following the break-up of Refused, Dennis LyxzÃ©n started T(I)NC, a Marxist influenced band that was rooted more in garage rock and soul than it was the hardcore aggression of Refused. Although songs like "Capitalism Stole My Virginity" are more palatable than Refused's output, it isn't any less subversive lyrically — and that dichotomy between a sexy exterior and a radical core also lies at the core of T(I)NC's music. Ironically, The (International) Noise Conspiracy were putting out their best music right before the garage rock explosion occurred via acts like the Hives and White Stripes, proving that being a true visionary often means paving the way for others instead of basking in your own glory.
The Next Generation
Everyone from Anthrax to Crazy Town to The Used have covered songs from The Shape of Punk to Come, but pop-punk act Paramore seem to have formed a deeper bond with the disc. Although Paramore's 2007 album Riot! is teeming with pop gems, it also sees frontwoman Hayley Williams singing, "We want the airwaves back" during the song "Born For This," which is a direct lift from Refused's own "Liberation Frequency." Ultimately, the true beauty of Refused's legacy lies in the way they recontextualized influences and genres to create something completely new. The fact that Paramore is fronted by a 20-year-old woman with cotton-candy-colored hair illustrates just how dramatic the impact of that kind of shift can truly be. Paramore's commercial success suggests that Refused could have been huge, had they not imploded before they got a chance to be properly heard.