Sunday, August 23, 2009
Perfect Albums: The Shape Of Punk To Come
I’ve experienced two music related, life altering moments while riding the Long Island Rail Road in New York. The first was when I had just turned 14 and I heard Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” for the first time. One of the all time Seminal moments of my lifetime, but we’re not here to talk about that, we’re here to talk about the second instance.
This time, I was 15 and my family and I were back up visiting my home town (Farmingdale, Strong Island!!!). I was riding the train back from NYC and decided to put the new album I had just picked up in my portable CD player (yea, this was back in the 50’s when people listened to music in disc form, before they invented these future boxes the size of business cards that play 80 years worth of music. What a time to be alive, I tells ya. You kids don’t know how good you have it these days. Is it time for my sponge bath yet? Where's my Metamucil!?). I didn’t know it as I put the CD in the player but I was about to get the absolute shit kicked out of me through my ears.
The back story here is, I was way into punk rock, but specifically only really liked older 80’s and late 70's punk rock of all varieties. LA hardcore, NY noise punk, Midwestern post-punk, British Mod punk. It didn’t matter what type or sub genre it was, the common thread is that it was all from the 70’s and 80’s, when these bands still sounded fresh and dangerous. The early 90’s and its grunge explosion of garbage literally fucking killed punk rock for me, so I was always trying desperately to find new punk bands that felt the way older bands did: perfect. While there have been a handful in the last ten years or so, they are few and far between for me. Anyways, I used to get any Punk Rock compilation CD I could, to see if I could find any hidden gem of a band that worked for me. Epitaph Records had just put out their Punk-O-Rama 4 comp (I had all the previous collections) and it was the first time they put songs from their Swedish subsidiary, Burning Heart Records, on the mix. On it was a song called “Summerholidays Vs. Punkroutine” from a band I had never heard called “Refused”, who hailed from Umeå, Sweden. It wasn’t a fast or heavy song at all, it had less of a Black Flag feel, more of a Punk Mod-ish, almost Indie Rock quality to it like a song by Wire, The Jam, Television, or Dream Syndicate. I liked the song a lot, but it wasn’t my usual style. It didn’t bark in my face the way Black Flag or The Descendents did. It always stuck in the back of my head though, and I would hear it often as I listened to the Punk-O-Rama mix In following weeks. I began to find that it was very clever, very unique. Over time, it became my favorite song of the compilation. The very night before we left to visit our old NY stomping grounds, I was watching 120 Minutes on MTV (back when they still aired it, as they still should now) and a really odd music video started up with guys running around a building in animal suits. The credits in the lower corner of the screen listed the band as “Refused” so I perked up to see what other songs they had to offer other than the one from the Punk-O-Rama CD I had heard. What I proceeded to watch/listen to was a personal revolution. The song, “New Noise” was the fucking loudest, noisiest, heaviest thing I had ever heard in my life. The guitars were smothering, the drumming was borderline violent, and the vocals felt like a cheese grater against my face. I had heard some pretty heavy music in my life, but this song felt like an all consuming tidal wave. It had more energy than a song cold possibly know what to do with. I couldn’t get it out of my mind the whole next day on the plane ride to New York and the first chance I got to break away from my family and hop a train to the city to do some record shopping, I took it. I forget if I grabbed it at my beloved “Sound and Fury” or the Times Square Virgin Megastore as I picked up some stuff from each.
So here I am on the train ride back to my Aunt’s house and the first album I decide to pop in for the ride home is Refused’s third album “The Shape of Punk To Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts” (how fucking awesome is that title?), which had the two songs I had already heard from them on it. What I heard kicked the shit right out of me. The concept and execution of this album was so radical to me. It was everything I had ever wanted music to be, and here it was, right between my ears. It was the first contemporary hardcore album I had heard. The album was so heavy, It was the first time I ever described music as making me feel like I was drowning. There are parts of this album that smother you and don’t let you up for air. The last 40 seconds of the third Track, “Deadly Rhythm”, was the most unrelenting, suffocating thing I had ever heard at that point.
The album featured immensely heavy and fast guitar work, weird electronic breakdowns between songs, blistering drumming that had more roots in jazz than it did in punk or metal, absolute visceral screaming from beginning to (almost) end, leftist political quotes and phrases, jazz samples, an acoustic last song (which feels like the kiss and hug an abusive husband would give his wife after he finished beating her with how heavy the rest of the album feels), as much anti-capitalism as a Rage Against The Machine album, and an 8 minute song in three parts that initiated my love for long, building, dramatic heavy music in the vein of Isis, City of Caterpillar, Pelican, Neurosis, Sunn O))) and even Post rock bands like Godspeed you Black Emperor! and Mogwai . It is the oddest, most eclectic and most political hardcore album ever made and when I heard it the first time, it just about knocked my head off my fucking shoulders. My appreciation for the world’s loudest, heaviest, and most smothering music began here. It started my love affair with bands that have become my all time favorites, such as Converge, Cave In, Botch, Isis, Blacklisted, Trap Them, Burnt By The Sun, Disfear, Modern Life Is War, etc. It's heavy riffs got me not only into modern hardcore, but it's inspiration, heavy metal (and it's many sub genres) itself. My deep affection for heavy began right here. I was never the same. When I used to wear glasses I would constantly almost break them as they would repeatedly fly off my face as I would flail around while lip synching and pretend shouting to everything Dennis Lyxzén screams on this album
After making “Shape of Punk to Come”, Refused broke up and splintered off to start new projects that are still incredibly good, but could never possibly touch the legacy this album leaves in my eyes. It’s good they split up, honestly. I fear that they would never had made anything as complete and revolutionary as this. It is heavily revered in the hardcore community as one of the genre’s seminal albums and Refused remains one of modern Hardcore’s most beloved and most missed bands. They had two albums prior to this, both exceptional, but their Masterpiece is “The Shape of Punk to Come” which proved to be an accurate title for me as every aggressive album I’ve heard since, I’ve had to measure to this one. It set the tone for me and created a love affair with audio heaviness that will undoubtedly last the rest of my life. It’s been 8 years now and this still remains a perfect record for me, and while I have plenty more now that exceed it on my “favorites” list, it will always be my first love, the first perfect album that started it all and led me to some of the music I cherish now. If you haven’t heard it, get a copy. Hopefully, it will become as revolutionary and incendiary to you as it was to me.