I was late for the party and early for the bands. As I breezed through the light security at the Øya gates for the first time this year, everyone else was cleaning up after last night’s shows. You almost feel like you should give a helping hand. The environmentally conscious youth look bone tired, sloppy dreads bouncing from one shoulder to another as they pick up cigarette butts and chuck them in the bins. The growing focus on clean energy and carbon footprint is Øya’s extra energy boost for the promoters and the audience. Knowing how well the crews clean up the park every year and that the Medieval ruins don’t topple under the pressure of people, I feel good as I trudge around. It is miles from the permanent cesspool/mud-pit that is Roskilde.
Not much has changed in the setup since last year, except the food is even better. Sure, Øya food is more expensive. But where else can you find vegan gumbo stew cooked by professional chefs? It made my eyes and mouth water simultaneously.
I am happy to report: People don’t change either. As the clock hit 2 PM, the audience drizzle turned into a stream. They stumbled through the gates carrying smart phones, eager to tweet ØYA ØYA ØYA before hearing a single guitar chord. The national media are on them like hawks, journalist are required to supply the editors with the Øya look. Mini-skirts and wellingtons? Head scarves and a sari? Who knows? Oh… this is a MUSIC festival? I had no idea. My inner fashion critic boils it down to two sentences. Boy: Cut thy ironic mustache. Girl: Oversized sunglasses make you look like a house fly.
Another stranger appeared: The sun. Lacking house fly glasses, I squinted and scowled. Living in Norway you are a constant sun sceptic. I was sure it would vanish any second, replaced by blessed rain so we all could scream: I told you so. But it stayed. So I went to hear some music.
The curse of the unsigned charmer
If you don’t know Mikhael Paskalev, I can give you the short introduction. He hails from the picturesque region of Norway called Møre og Romsdal. Known for pretty fjords and mountains, not so much for rock and roll fame. He is the winner of the Zoom competition, where the Norwegian audience vote online to pick their favorite unsigned artists. His first single “I Spy” gets airplay on national radio about 6 times every single day. His second single makes British newspapers swoon, thinking they have found the new summer soundtrack. I thought the summer was over. Apparently the Guardian wants to stretch it.
Even though he had an early spot on the Vika stage, Paskalev managed to draw a pretty large crowd. He started alone, with just his acoustic guitar. Breezed through a forgettable pop number, it almost drowned in the small talk of the audience. Compliments were thrown like candy from stage, the artists had a strong need to constantly remind the audience that they looked good. The rest of his band come on and the sound problems are instantly apparent. The keyboards are only seen, not heard. Paskalevs guitar is the only instrument that breaks through. It fails to sound like a band. “I spy” comes early and the crowd does a quick cheers, one that dies before it has a chance to echo.
The rest of the set is a teaser for the upcoming album that “everyone” is waiting for. He tries single guitar pop mixed with some afrobeat. Hello Mikhael. Ground control to major Paskalev. The space station of pop is in the danger zone. Didn’t Vampire Weekend already rip off Graceland a few years back? When they are so forgettable, how can we expect Paskalev to make an impact? He could easily be the Jason Mraz of light summer pop, naked and frozen solid when winter comes. Let me illustrate my surroundings to show how little Mikhael captivated us. The man in front of me is reading cartoons out loud to his daughter, the home boys next to me are discussing the pain of taking prostate biopsies. I kid you not. Unless he aims bigger or gets less conventional, I don’t see any future in this space cadet.
Bad luck Susanna and too much band
As I was doing my homework the night before Øya, I thought I would listen to the latest material of the artists I would encounter. When I spun Susanna’s Wild Dogs, my girlfriend commented from the kitchen. “What is this? Susanne Sundfør?” I don’t blame anyone for getting the two mixed up. Young, talented mysterious women with powerful voices, often caught behind the piano. When she had her Magical Orchestra it was easier to split Susanna from Susanne, but now they easily melt. Don’t get me wrong, I think Wild Dogs is a decent album with a lot of pretty songs. I admire Susanna for her cooperation with home team favorites like Bonnie Prince Billy and Jim White. It is just not music for the large sunny stage.
The live setup was pure Øya familiarity. Singer behind vintage electric piano. Stone-faced noise/mood guitarist with 600 effect pedals. Choir girls with odd string instruments. Hazy, psychedelic jazz drummer with percussion help. I am sorry, but yawn. Have enough faith in your songs to strip them down, don’t layer on all this indie bullshit. It drowns lyrics, it drowns power. It is so heartbreakingly safe. Which is why I could not get into it. Had she played in a small smoky German bar in a back alley, I am sure I would get the shivers. Out in the sunshine I really don’t feel anything. Some things might be better on record.
To paraphrase the band: Refused were fucking dead. Now they have been resurrected. Riding in on the reunion tsunami. The Swedish hardcore band are tattooed into my soul, reviewing them is like putting myself on the chopping block. I am deconstructing my musical past and present, forcing myself to look in the mirror for signs of faded hardcore, politics left behind in the wake of growing up and growing jaded. I first heard Refused when I was about 14. I had ordered a Millencolin hoodie from the Burning Heart mail-order, and as I opened the package I saw that they had thrown in some bonus items. “Neat, stickers for my cheap Ibanez guitar. Wait, what, is this?” It was a VHS tape (read up on it kids) with music videos. Me and my little brother were all over it. We were just the right age for Millencolin, not heartbroken enough to like Samiam and not angry enough to get into Agnostic Front.
Then it came on. Refused- New Noise. I had not heard anything remotely close to it before. Catchy, angry, filled with this creative frustration. The record store actually stocked The Shape of Punk to Come and instantly it became a bible for my friends at school. We played holes in that record, reading the lyric sheet up and down. Checking out the literature, getting into anti-capitalism. Almost like a paradigm shift. I have heard the stories from others; Refused changed a lot of lives. Few bands were so outspoken in their politics, so intelligent in their responses. And they were Scandinavian! We could not believe it.
Of course, as The Shape of Punk to Come broke new ground it also broke the band. Trapped between growing fame, big stages and punk ideals the whole party program just imploded. It was probably right. To finish on top is seriously underrated; so many hardcore bands get watered down to playing just old hits and releasing mediocre new records.
How do you grow old gracefully within hardcore? You just don’t. Period. You drop the straight edge, you stop being vegan, you settle down, your politics go centre-right. Unless you are Keith Morris, then you hang on. Everyone else just plays slightly political indie. It is true, and you know it. Maybe that is why all the scenesters spread so much hate online when it comes to Refused touring again? We see ourselves, how we have aged, how jaded we all are.
So did I want to see Refused? Did I want to see myself in the mirror? I almost had to force myself to the stage, dragged along by friends. I thought a slightly negative attitude would be best, that way I could not get terribly heartbroken if they failed to deliver.
I started up near the front. The crowd was buzzing in anticipation; I have never seen a more jittery crowd at Øya. Rumors of mosh pits start to circle around. Come on? Moshing at Øya? Never gonna happen. Just to be on the safe side, I retreat a couple of meters. Never been a mosh warrior, this conflicted mood certainly didn’t make me one.
The curtain is raised and the Swedes appear. First impressions: The band has aged impressively well. Sure, they were young when they started, but the energy and beauty of youth still shine on their faces. In contrast you can do a Google Image search for Poison Idea or Axl Rose. Not everyone ages well. I guess you can chalk up one point for veganism and clean living. Dennis goes straight into his circus acrobatics that he perfected during his later years as head of The (International) Noise Conspiracy. He is dressed like he stopped in from a Transylvanian Christmas party. No long-winded introduction, they just crack on.
Worms of the senses/faculties of the skull is not a bad start, but it is not until Rather be dead that I get actual shivers. It is tight, hard-hitting and Dennis has never had a better voice for screaming. Shouting the line “rather be alive” again and again is not just sheep mimicking the leader on stage. It is a lyric than you can load any kind of personal meaning into. Something snaps inside me, feelings start to slosh around.
As for politics and the whole anti-capitalist/big stage-small stage thing: Refused knows. They fucking know. They have heard it all before, so shut up you washed-up anarchist. The debate will always glow hot. Can you play anti-capitalist music on a large stage sponsored by a bank? Should they have rather played at a squat to nodding scenesters in their 30’s and drunk punks who never gave a fuck? If you have ever been a musician you know this: It feels good to be on stage, it feels good to channel your music. I can guarantee you that is what Refused were feeling.
The banter is witty and shows insight and irony concerning the whole reunion. About halfway, Dennis goes: “I was going to say something clever here, but these pants are so tight they restrict blood flow to my brain”.
Personal highlights were the tracks Coup d’etat and The Deadly Rhythm, two immensely angry and powerful numbers. The crowd seemed to agree, they exploded in strange tribal dances and moshing at all the right places. Just don’t ask them to clap in rhythm.
The concept seemed to be “Refused plays Shape of Punk” plus the top tracks from “Songs to Fan the Flames”, but we were all okay with that. Refused finally did their last album justice in all its detailed perfection. As Tannhauser/Derive provided a movie-like ending to the set, grown men started floating up in the crowd surf position, slowly moving towards the back. They could not care less about the grappling hands of the angry stage security men. The surfers had a look of pure joy on their faces. All around me I saw people hugging themselves and their partners, sweaty bodies, relief. To me it felt like proof that certain types of music are not yet dead within me. I could easily get religious with this experience, but I will keep that to myself.
Refused now have nothing more to prove, not to the haters, not to the fans. They deserve to shine in the spotlight with the final tour they never completed. Talk about 1994 all you want, here and now Refused are an amazing live act.