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Diamonds in the Dust: Refused's crusade on punk rock conventionalism

Diamonds in the Dust
Incoming freshmen and other ASU students cheer during ASU's Fall Welcome Concert on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015, at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe.

Diamonds in the Dust is a weekly study of the criminally neglected; songs, albums and entire genres swept under the rug by a lack of media attention, misunderstandings or simply being too ahead of its time.

Punk music is loud, fast, brash and brazen, and most of it doesn’t do much else. Focused on making grand societal criticisms, punk snarls its way through the coarse mouths of rebellious outcasts on a mission to beat back the world around them. In a lot of ways, punk rockers are more like sonic terrorists than musicians.

For much of the genre’s early years, it was led by boorish men with chips on their shoulders, seeking platforms to thrash about like savages. But, given time to grow, music genres eventually cross paths with pseudo-intellectual twenty-somethings who use their place to “elevate” the early sounds into an “art form.”

Sometimes these college student appropriations work out though, and for every overrated act like Parquet Courts and Wavves, there are bands like Refused and Fucked Up — two undisputed kings of evolving modern punk rock — to level the moshing field.

Being a critic-friendly punk is somewhat of a conundrum and perhaps even a bit hypocritical depending on which studded leather jacket wearing, mohawk-man you ask. And it’s precisely those naysayers who spew their misguided hate at bands looking to reinvigorate an ironically tired genre.

To understand how a band might do that, you only need one minute with Refused’s 1998 game-changer “The Shape of Punk to Come.” Opening track “Worms of the Senses/Faculties of the Skull,” begins with a collage of traffic-jammed cars, a suavely delivered poem line and the menacing crawl of effects-heavy guitar feedback.

The pursuing hour is an onslaught of genre bending madness that sought a cure for the late ‘90s pop-punk plague. By transfusing standard hardcore sentiments with jazz and electro breaks, punch-someone-in-back-of-the-head riffing, and an utter disregard for conventional time-signatures, Refused somewhat ironically used punk music to launch an anti-punk music campaign.

Most of the record’s tracks deal directly in poking holes in punk’s mainstream acceptance, you just have to ignore the radically leftist lyrics to hear it. For example “New Noise,” is a relatively accessible entry into Refused’s philosophy of taking what you know, deconstructing it and making something entirely new and listenable. The chest-beating guitars and rhythm section could give listeners a false sense of security, and nothing about “New Noise” is too off the cuff.

In other words, this track is borderline radio-ready. But singer Dennis Lyxzén’s maniacal voice would melt the eardrums of every unsuspecting coffee-gripping soccer mom innocently scanning the frequencies for her wintery yuletide jingles and thus, Refused is airwave-absent.

Imagine that same mother waking to her child blasting the song “Refused are Fucking Dead.” Now imagine her head exploding. Apply the same images to mainstream punk bands of that era and the executives backing them and you’ll have an idea at what Refused was going for.

Thankfully the band’s crusade found success through widespread acclaim, and its concepts spawned an army of genre-reformists in the 2000s. Unfortunately, the rank and file of this musical revolution were untrained at wielding the double-edged sword of change. This meant many of them, to be frank, made bad music. Some imitated the best in unflattering ways. Some make punk a "lite" affair, stripping away the fury. Some simply peppered their punk with a bit too much of the lamest of indie’s influences.

But if there was one group that brandished its weapon like true warriors of advancement, it was the band Fucked Up. Infamous for its consistently violent and destructive shows, Fucked Up rooted itself in the barebones of hardcore punk with a series of white-knuckled seven-inches that established it as the tightest band around.

Flash forward to the 2008 album “The Chemistry of Common Life” and you’ll find the band had snapped its fanged maw shut and reformed into a whirling inferno of innovation. Like true Refused protégés, Fucked Up set out to break away from the mold and slam down a hardcore masterpiece.

Even the opening track “Son the Father” hearkens to “The Shape of Punk to Come,” with a minute long unconventional intro featuring a flute and, of course, guitar feedback. The evident similarities stop there however, as the song builds a freight train’s momentum and veers into singer Damian Abraham’s strangely Biblical poem. His throat-shredding references to Cain and Abel and Jerusalem feel drawn from the mouth of a manic street preacher proclaiming the forthcoming apocalypse. Consider the rabidity of the band behind him and Fucked Up is practically beckoning the end of times with a full-on charge.

If anything about the last paragraph rubbed you the wrong way, Fucked Up is likely not for you. This band is admittedly pretentious and in constant search of applying the word “epic” to its categorization. Punk purists should stick to the early seven-inch tracks like “Police” and “Municiple Prick,” but if you’re like me and have grown tired of traditional hardcore, then by all means continue reading.

And if you fall into that second category too, your next stop on the Fucked Up bus should be 2011’s “David Comes to Life,” a punk-rock concept album about two lovers’ quest to be together. Actually, the story is far more complicated and bizarre and deserves an entire write up just to explain which you can conveniently read here.

Put the narrative aside though, and what remains is a concentrated effort to once again redefine what punk rock can stand for. This is a start-to-finish album with a capital A; the “Tommy” of hardcore if you will. This makes picking a single track to recommend near impossible as each of them requires context.

“Queen of Hearts” is the place to start if you can’t devote enough time to experience the entirety of the album. Hearing Abraham scream “Hello, my name is David/ Your name is Veronica/ Let’s be together/ Let’s fall in love” will impose you to growl along with him. Joyous proclamations of love in a punk song? Yes, more please — keep the anthems coming.

Refused and Fucked Up are by no means the only punk rock innovators around and even calling them punk is a minimization of both bands’ output. I only hope that the relative accessibility of each group will enthrall you enough to pursue the vast catalog of divergent punk bands in history. There’s much more to hardcore than up tempo chest beating, you just have to know where to look.

Related Links:

Diamonds in the Dust: Pioneers of all-girl rock bands, Ace of Cups and Fanny

Diamonds in the Dust: Ty Segall is the psychedelic reincarnate the world needs

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