By Chad Swiatecki
Special to the American-Statesman
If the past 30 years are a reliable sample size, hardcore punk bands tend to age about as well as NFL franchise running backs. Consider the surprisingly similar career arc: neck-snapping bursts of speed and power that generally last for five year at most before Father Time intercedes and robs them of the youthful vigor that made them phenoms.
There are exceptions, sure. But the uncomfortable mediocrity of Emmitt Smith’s Arizona Cardinals years, along with the years of feuding between the remnants of Black Flag, serve as cautionary eventual realities for their respective professions.
So there was a lot to be concerned about last year when Swedish punks Refused returned with a new album 17 years after they broke up during the tour to support 1998’s “The Shape of Punk to Come.” That record had redefined the limits of what a hardcore band could sound like, adding jazz-like compositional structures and well-placed samples and finding a quiet/loud balance that was close to perfect.
“Freedom” was too plodding and not as nimble by a few steps, like an open-field rusher reduced to short-distance fullback duties. The power was there, but the surprise was gone.
Topping the long-sold-out show Sunday at the Mohawk — it probably could have sold to near-capacity across town at the twice-as-large Emo’s — singer Dennis Lyxen and his bandmates found themselves on a bill packed with young, noisy upstarts. There was Austin teen trio and recent Sire Records signees Residual Kid, the glammy noise of California tour mates Plague Vendor and the contemporary riot grrrl fury of the Coathangers.
Such an opening slate could have made a subpar performance by the headliners all the more resonant and dispiriting; the new guard showing up their once-great heroes.
That was not the case. Kicking off the set with the recent album opener “Elektra,” the quintet was locked in and confident in its new skin for the whole of its 90 minutes, letting slight touches of its newer and occasionally prog-rock leanings color older songs in fresh ways.
Those alterations didn’t lessen “The Shape of Punk to Come,” where new guitarist Mattias Barjed’s brief solo served as a new feature on a familiar song that kept the set from turning into a rote Refused jukebox/revue-style show.
Heavily sweating from constant jumps, kicks, screaming and microphone swinging, Lyxen started the first of several addresses to the churning crowd by joking that they’d “paid good money to hear communists play punk music.” He then gave them their money’s worth, venturing into the audience and club balcony to sing a big piece of “Rather Be Dead” with audience members in his face.
The rest of the set proceeded in mostly the same fashion. Only a handful of newer songs were scattered among the band’s ’90s-era catalog, which still packs an amazing punch and retains the rhythmic and dynamic hairpin turns of the band’s early days.
Returning after a brief encore break, Lyxen took to oratory again and shared how thankful the band was to have made a career playing music after growing up in a small Swedish village. He implored the crowd to support young bands like the ones earlier on the bill, who he said were doing a bang-up job of following in the footsteps of Austin greats such as the Big Boys, the Dicks and Butthole Surfers.
Those bands are also pretty much chasing Refused, of course. Two songs later, when the headliners kicked into “New Noise” and its opening query “Can I scream?!?!”, the crowd’s participation and the sea of bodies teeming in front of Lyxen were proof enough that his band is aging just fine and still has a hefty lead from anyone giving chase.
The Shape of Punk to Come
Refused Party Program
Rather Be Dead
The Deadly Rhythm
Thought Is Blood
Refused Are (Expletive) Dead
Servants of Death
Worms of the Senses/Faculties of the Skull
Summerholiday Vs. Punkroutine