On Shuffle: “New Noise” by Refused

Posted: by The Editor

Graphic by Madison Van Houten

On Shuffle is a weekly column dictated by a combination of computerized chance and personal history. Every week, I’ll put my iTunes library—which I’ve been cultivating in some form since at least 2007—on shuffle and I’ll write about whatever song comes up first. All of these are songs that I’ve added to my library over the last 15 years, so all of them have a reason for being there. I may or may not remember what that was. To read more about why I’m doing this, check out this intro post.

This week on shuffle: “New Noise” by Refused

Can I have a little SCREAM? You know…as a treat? 

I think I really needed to have something loud and obnoxious after two weeks of mild and pleasant indie rock. “New Noise” is the perfect foil to those moods for a dozen reasons. For one, it is not mild, nor is it really very pleasant. It’s brash, aggressive, and shrill. It’s also not small in the way another punk or hardcore song might be here—this is what set Refused apart in 1998 (I am told—I was 4). With The Shape of Punk to Come and especially “New Noise,” Refused wanted to be loud as hell and searingly dynamic and have those dirty riffs, but they also wanted to sound huge. I mean, look at that album title. Watch a video from that era. Read the lyrics, their supposed command of understanding (or some kind of understanding) of the power of the arbiters of popular music. Refused wanted to shift the paradigm and they are very clear about that. It’s obnoxious in a different way. It also absolutely shreds, sorry. 

After getting together in 1991, the Swedish band delivered quite a few releases between 1992 and 1998, including a number of EPs and singles I’ve never dug into. I’ll admit that I’m not very well-versed in their work before The Shape of Punk to Come, although I have listened to their 1994 debut This Just Might Be…the Truth and their 1996 follow-up Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent a few times before (I remember preferring the latter, though neither of these appear in my library as of today).

From what I can tell, the band had quite a bit of trouble getting their footing for a US audience—the aesthetic of Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent was out-of-place with what leftist punks were looking for at the time. “We toured the States in ​’96, and I remember I was so excited about going over there, but all political people that I related to didn’t want to touch us because we were on Victory Records then and we were kinda metal-sounding, and then the people who liked our music hated our politics,” Dennis Lyxzén said in a retrospective interview with Kerrang! They’d break up halfway through their ill-attended US tour in support of The Shape of Punk to Come, after the cops cut off one of their shows in Virginia. 

shape of punk to come artwork

Don’t have time to mention this but the album art is cool, love the purple/orange/blue color combos.

Refused is in many ways defined by the outsized, colossal ambition that they project on “New Noise,” at least in that original era. In retrospect (and maybe back then too) this ambition can appear a little bit…corny. I did not say the full name of the album earlier. The full name of the album is actually The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts. Ok. When Refused very famously announced their breakup with a letter titled “REFUSED ARE FUCKING DEAD,” they opened their letter like this: “Just like the political theorists and philosophers (Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida, Debord and so on) we also managed with a sort of self fulfilling prophecy.” Ok. 

Another tidbit from that letter: “We were hoping that we could be the final nail in the coffin of the rotten cadaver that was popular music.” In many ways, “New Noise” wanted to be the hammer, and it did get them somewhere as far as their ambition was concerned. To this day, it’s their flagship song, the one that exposed Refused to an MTV audience and did the work of infiltrating their anticapitalist ideas into some kind of mainstream. That it happened through the very culture-industry mechanisms that the band rebelled against in songs like “New Noise” would not have been lost on them, and it played into their initial demise—“When every expression, no matter how radical it is, can be transformed into a commodity and be bought or sold like cheap soda, how is it then possible that you are going to be able to take “art” seriously?” Refused wanted so badly to change the world with their music, it’s kind of devastating to see them realize that they may not be able to.

Here’s the thing about Refused and their ambition—to me, it still reads as admirable. This band fucking went for it. “New Noise,” even in its relative (and I mean relative) commercial success, is still kind of a challenging hardcore song. The way it builds up tension for over a full minute, making the most of its eventual explosion…there’s a reason that eventual, long-gestating “CAN I SCREAM?” has permeated the consciousness of a certain sect of heavy music. It’s so much, so dramatic, but, what can I say, it has an effect, and it works, if not entirely in the way that the band wanted.

“New Noise” is not a very clear representative of The Shape of Punk to Come. The album itself is much more complicated than the song suggests, it is a challenging, big swing that does attempt to stretch the genre into new directions. It’s certainly overwrought, and it’s not an album I listen to much. But it is a kind of thrill to watch a band really go for it like this. I think it’s never a bad thing to have a band who really commits, who really believes in what they’re doing and will jump as high as they possibly can on the virtue of that spirit. Even if they fall flat, I’d really rather have that than 1000 bands saying “here’s another silly little song!” I mean, trust me, I know that it’s easier to undermine yourself than it is to honestly say how much you believe in what you’re doing (I undermine my own work constantly). But Refused had fucking guts doing what they did here.

They were also inevitably more down-to-earth than I imagined, if this 1998 Swedish interview is a good representative. Here, they seem personable, funny even. They’re smiling and making jokes (and promoting healthy eating?) even while they’re straightforwardly talking about their revolutionary concerns—“we know very well that we’re to wage a class war against the upper classes and overthrow the government and capitalist society. Pretty bad odds.” It also seems like they walked the walk! If the Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent tour erroneously attracted right-wing dickheads, it seems like they didn’t let it happen unchallenged—“what angers us the most is threats and the like from Nazi groups. We are very militant anti-Nazis. If they’re at our gigs, we confront them.” Refused was aware of what they were doing and they strove to maintain control in service of their cause as much as they could.

“New Noise,” though, might have gotten out of their hands. Now it soundtracks sports games and evokes a kind of Monster Energy Drink brand allegiance. I cannot be sure how much these associations come from “New Noise” itself or from the crowd they ended up influencing. When the band reunited and released Freedom in 2015, it read to me as a failure to the band’s ethos. It was middle-of-the-road heavy rock music, a complete abandonment of the commitment to the “New art for the real people!” philosophy that The Shape of Punk to Come went for.

Still, like their initial run, the tension between their ambitions and the actual fact of their existence is part of the messy fascination of Refused. When I saw them play Riot Fest in 2016, it still felt monumental. They were huge. We all screamed.

Beer on shuffle:

beer called "The Shape of Hops to Come"

Songmeanings.com on shuffle:

  • From 2002: “especially when he first screams ”can i scream”………….im definately not gonna stop him”
  • There’s also a weird Rancid v. Refused debate in there I can’t seem to track.

Sports on shuffle:

  • I hear you all like Friday Night Lights. I can’t say I’ve seen it but here:
  • It does just…have that hype quality

Live videos on shuffle:

  • Love the dance moves on stage during the buildup here:

Jordan Walsh | @jordalsh

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