The Punk of Tomorrow, Today
Every time. Every single time I hear it, I have to take a moment to collect myself afterward. I have to mentally step back from the brink of the societal revolution that’s about to upend the classist regime inside my own head. With each listen, upon Dennis Lyxzén's half-muttered “thank you” and the noodling of electric guitar strings recovering from just having been throttled to within an inch of their lives, I find myself honestly wondering if this might be the best – not “one of the best”, but “the best” – post-hardcore song ever.
I have said emphatically for years that I don’t define categorical “best”'s or “favorite”'s or really any superlative as a general rule. My reasoning for this will no doubt be familiar to anyone with a passion for appreciating any form of art: to declare that any one work as “the best” within whatever field it’s being evaluated in brings with it a sense that a door is closing, that the art has, in at least some respect, reached an apex beyond which it can progress no further. To declare something the best example of its form can be shortsighted in many ways – the people in the latter half of the 20th Century who lobbied for Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever could have had no idea that There Will Be Blood was out there waiting for its time, albeit in a fairly distant future (a reductive example for lots of reasons, but I’m sure you take my meaning).
Another reason for this is that our favorites change so often and are so dependent on mood, listening habits, emotional state, life events, age, context, and myriad other considerations both linear and tangential. Right now, at this moment, if I had a gun to my head and had to list a favorite album, I could certainly do it. But if you held that same gun on me tomorrow, I would just as certainly have a different answer. If I'm being honest (and how could I lie with a gun to my head?), I would have two answers – one being the new answer, and one being a reconsideration of the first answer. And I know that you would argue with me about that for all sorts of reasons because even I can see that it clearly makes no sense…but, hey…hey, we're friends, right? Let’s be friends and have you just put down the gun before things go sideways, ok? Be a buddy, whaddayasay? Let’s just talk things through a little bit…
The circumvention of the flag-planting dogma inherent in naming a "best" is, of course, the Top-5/-10/-20/-whatever list. The logic runs something like: “I refuse to name a best/favorite because there is too much riding on it and I’m not sure there realistically even is such a thing, so instead I can say that something 'would probably be in my Top-5'.” This opens things up considerably. Instead of having to ever think about what “the best (piece of art)” might look like, we have a way to show that we hold something in high regard without ever having to truly quantify that regard. An example of one such exchange might be along the lines of:
“Who’s your favorite artist of the past decade?”
“Hmmm, not sure who my favorite would be, but Parquet Courts is probably in the Top-5.”
The added benefit of the Top-(whatever) List, and this is crucial, is that you don’t really have to name them all - it's purely theoretical. If you ever had to seriously consider that list, whatever it is, you would in the end be simply doing the thing you’d been trying to avoid this whole time, i.e. picking a favorite (or five favorites, as the case may be). It would be limiting in the same way. And so, for those of us who utilize this rhetorical bait-and-switch, the idea of compiling these lists exists somewhere in the chasm between implausibility and fever dream – a way to eat the cake of opining without packing on the caloric responsibility of decisiveness.
There are very few things that have ever made me question this aversion to naming the “best” of anything in music, but Refused might very well have crafted the best possible post-hardcore song. Buried within their now-classic The Shape of Punk To Come from 1998, this Swedish band built something amazing: a song that streamlines the dual natures of rebellion and optimism into something politically heady, but so simple in how it spoke to young peoples' desire to upset the status quo that even MTV could get behind it.
“New Noise” begins with the muted palpitations of a jagged guitar line played urgently and sounding like it's coming from the other side of a wall. Before long, it’s joined by a rejoindering siren of a companion line with more immediacy and bite. War drums kick on and off, echoing in a call-and-response with the guitar – the melody begins to build, coiling like a viper, each second perilously closer to the inevitability of a strike. Just when the tension reaches the breaking point…it does just that, devolving into noncommittal robotic noise. But the synth squelches and drum loops that fill the void are uneasy, Muzak-ing the intensity of the guitars before settling into a new rhythm, one that is complacent and lounge-y. For some reason, this seemingly innocuous break in the action feels tenser because it comes across as fake, or coerced in some unspeakable way – it feels like a lie. And then without warning, a rhetorical question that carries its own answer: “CAN I SCREAM?!!”
The dynamics of the song allow Refused to twist, stomp, and thrust their way through five-odd minutes of left-wing progressivism, cocksure swagger, and vicious musical interplay. Along the way, listeners are advised of a new world order, one that is flagrantly anti-capitalist and disrespectful of old institutions and wisdom ("Money buys the access / We can't pay the cost"). Over and over, we are told that the band is "not leading" in this philosophical coup d'état - on its face a statement of passivity, but the sentiment can just as easily be read to mean that no one is "leading" because the future won't need more "leaders". Instead, that which is to come will demand more of us as individuals: reason, understanding, accountability, and no small amount of fortitude. The band sums it up perfectly when they ask “How we can we expect anyone to listen / if we’re using the same old voice? / We need new noise”. Never has a song delivered more satisfyingly on its titular promise.
“New Noise” is a feat of theatrical musicality as well: perfectly timed vocal shifts accent the supernova guitar work while the percussion and bass pummel each other as one would expect from any accomplished hardcore act. The prestige of the magic trick happens underneath the veneer with the inclusion of so many other untraditional sonic elements – synths and drum machines as mentioned above create a sense of dysphoric queasiness, ambient zero-gravity soundscapes bring something approaching tranquility to a late-song breakdown, and, in perhaps the most successful use of crowd noise ever in a song, the final minute-plus is bathed in a righteous cacophony of screaming fans. A move that could have easily scanned as amateurish proves to be such a canny creative choice by the band because it gives the song a feeling of triumph and empowerment – it paints a vivid picture of the throngs of people who have ostensibly already bought in to the message.
This is the sound of a lit fuse about to hit paydirt, it’s the sound of machines being raged upon and beaten, it is an anthem for positive change and a giant loogie hocked at the idea of capitalistic disenfranchisement. As with any art that evolves as an offshoot of punk the way hardcore has, it demands engagement, participation, and the channeling of youthful energy into sociopolitically disruptive channels. It might be the single most hopeful song of the past quarter century, and it still resonates today in ways I wish it didn’t have to. When I hear it, I feel the tingling of sweat breaking through the pores in my skin. I feel lacerated by the guitars. I feel like there may be a reason to believe in good things, despite ample real-world evidence to the contrary. In short, I get amped up in that specific way that only ideologically engaging rock-n-roll can inspire.
And, with all due respect to the thousands of other groups who have been doing the same thing for years and years, I end up asking myself if this might be the single greatest achievement that post-hardcore has bestowed upon mankind.
Every. Damn. Time.