There’s a band in Cyberpunk 2077 called Samurai. In the game’s world, Samurai is fronted by Johnny Silverhand. In the real world, however, that band is Refused, who lends their talents to Cyberpunk by writing and performing all of Samurai’s in-game songs.
Refused is one of the most influential punk/hardcore bands of all time. Their 1998 album The Shape of Punk To Come is a cross-genre experimentation of what hardcore and punk rock truly is and what it can be. It combines those typically harsh genres with the more palatable sounds of techno, jazz, and swing. Naming an album something as declarative as The Shape of Punk To Come might seem a bit arrogant (it’s a nod to Ornette Coleman’s 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come, and also a “f— you” to punk and hardcore scenes of the ‘90s, as they tell it now), but luckily for Refused, their prophecy was correct. The Shape of Punk to Come was the shape of punk to come, setting the groundwork for pretty much every punk, hardcore, etc. album that came after. Bands like Paramore and Linkin Park cite the album as an influence. Tom Morello said that when Zack de la Rocha quit Rage Against The Machine, he considered asking Refused’s singer Dennis Lyxzén take his place.
While Refused actually broke up in 1998, a few weeks before The Shape of Punk to Come even came out, (their last show was in a house in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which coincidentally a friend of mine lived in two decades later), the mythos of the band and the vision of The Shape of Punk to Come propelled the band to a mythological status, far more popular after breaking up than they ever were while active. That is until 2012, when the band began sporadically playing shows again, up until 2015, when they released their first album in nearly 20 years, Freedom. Refused came back as a massive band, propelled by the attention they continuously gathered after splitting up. The band has remained together since then, putting out new releases and touring around the world, especially the high-paying festival circuit.
The point is: Refused is a legendary group. They are, easily, one of my favorite bands and The Shape of Punk to Come is one of the most important albums of my life. And I can’t understate what that meant for me as a kid. Hearing this Swedish punk band disassemble not only punk rock, but capitalism, poetry, and punk rock all within 12 songs was a huge deal. If anything, they were the first punk band I ever heard that was, like, actually good at their instruments. I didn’t fully grasp the politics I was hearing at the time, but I felt them, and that feeling means as much to me now as it did back then.
Refused plays Samurai in Cyberpunk 2077, and has released five songs under the Samurai name for the game’s soundtrack, which you can listen to on Spotify. They are, in essence, the sound of developer CD Projekt Red’s Night City, the band that scores your trip through its tech dystopia.
On the one hand, I love the fact that a band as political as Refused is in a game as big as Cyberpunk 2077. It’s delicious to me that a band that mentioned Marxist theory, called for a dismantlement of capitalist systems and the reclaiming of art and culture by the working class all within the liner notes of an album will now be shown to the “keep politics out of video games” crowd. I truly cannot wait for them to discover a song like “The Deadly Rhythm,” rife with lyrics about the injustices of labor practices, after thinking Samurai’s rock songs are pretty cool. But I digress.
On the other hand, the songs Refused wrote for Cyberpunk are not especially great. There are moments when the Refused I know and love shines – a verse here or a chorus there – but for the most part, the Samurai songs come off as pretty mediocre rock songs. They sound like the third-best band playing a show at a bar on a Tuesday night. Nothing ever reaches the heights of the rest of Refused’s consistently strong discography.
The songs recorded as Samurai are Refused at their most toothless. Vague lyrics about revolution or oppression do little to rouse any emotion in the listener. This is less the call to arms past Refused songs have been, and more a half-assed acknowledgement that, “Things are kinda bad, but whatever.”
Maybe that dip in quality is partly because Refused’s involvement in a game seems fundamentally flawed in the first place. The game industry is an example of what Refused told me they were fighting against. For all of their artistic merits, games are also commercial products sold by massive companies. And those companies offer greater rewards to the people at the top than the workers who create the games. Maybe Refused shouldn’t be in Cyberpunk 2077 at all; but at the same time, I shouldn’t believe that people remain the same people they were in their 20s, and that they don’t grow up or change sounds.