It’s been fourteen years since Refused last played London. Frontman Dennis Lyxzén, a man so cadaverous that he may be the only performing artist alive with a BMI reading lower than Iggy Pop’s, ended that show at a long-forgotten venue in insalubrious Holloway when he had his head cut open by his bandmate’s guitar. It was a fitting end to a tour characterised, as Lyxzén says, by shows at which they played to “30 people in fucking Stoke-on-Trent.”
Everything has changed in fourteen years, and nothing. Refused packed it in as only Refused could, in a furious haze of amateur philosophy. They issued a final communiqué – the preferred method of correspondence for revolutionary groups everywhere. It was a leftist cliché bingo sheet; a pseudo-Situationist yelp composed by a group of people with a clear understanding that something was wrong with the world, but without the ability to articulate their anger on paper. They attempted to lampoon the bourgeois notion of culture. They vowed to continue their attempts to overthrow the class system. They demanded that we live in a state of permanent revolution. The content was admirable, the tone adolescent – a final lashing out from a group who always wore their erudition heavily.
They are all pushing forty now. Lyxzén, in an act of recuperation that would have made his 26 year-old self vomit blood, was voted the sexiest man in Sweden by Elle Magazine. And now they are playing to two and a half thousand people in a venue sponsored by an ailing global retail chain. Vive la révolution.
They look wonderful – better than they ever did. Their sense of theatrics, seemingly no longer constrained by budget, has now been fully realised. They are preceded by a half hour long, single-note guitar drone and endless feedback before the lights come slowly up to reveal a stage-width banner bearing their name, white on black, the letters half-shattered. Then the banner falls, and Refused volley into the first bars of ‘Worms Of The Senses / Faculties Of The Skull’.
And, somehow, it’s totally underwhelming. The sound is shocking – a thrum of indistinguishable distortion punctured only by booming kick drum – but as the mix improves over the course of the next three songs, it becomes clear that it’s not entirely the engineer’s fault. The band are playing at full pelt, guitarists’ legs akimbo and arms outstretched, as if attempting to exorcise some unbearable tension. Meanwhile Lyxzén bunny-hops around the stage, a combination of grave concentration and awkward, nervous energy. They look as if the likelihood of the new anarchist utopia arising is directly proportionate to the quality of the show they put on. And, fourteen years ago, one imagines they believed it.
Now, though, the posturing no longer looks vital, or inspiring. It looks like a recreation; a re-enactment of a dive-bar putsch. It’s not that they aren’t trying – by God, they are trying, and there are moments (a whoop-along ‘New Noise’ paramount amongst them) during which you could be forgiven for thinking that you are watching something important.
But in reality, it’s pure nostalgia – precisely the Xeroxed image that they demanded in their communiqué that newspapers burn. It’s as if Refused have convinced themselves that meaning is imparted through a set of gestures and facial expressions; as if they believe that if they replicate a performance its importance will be replicated too. The form is the same, but the content is missing.
Midway through the set Lyxzén pays tribute to Pussy Riot, the Russian band incarcerated for performing an anti-Putin hymn. It’s an important cause; perhaps the most important in popular music today. And yet a comparison with Pussy Riot throws Refused’s reformation into depressingly stark relief. Music can still be a revolutionary force, but the reformed Refused are no longer part of that campaign. As loudly as they proclaim their own meaning, Lyxzén and his band no longer really seem to mean it. Theirs is an attempt to reproduce past triumphs; to transplant a rage that seems to have dissipated. As an exercise in reminiscence, it’s fine. As a revolutionary project, as the project that Refused claim it to be, it could only ever fail.