There are few contemporary guitar groups who inspire such feverish reactions among the arts commentariat than Iceage. From the opening clangour of their debut LP, ‘New Brigade’, critics the world over were climbing over one other to proclaim the brilliance of these scarily young Danes, and as they’ve grown across the past seven years, so has the cultish intensity of the high regard in which they are held. Not that reactions to this band have been uniformly positive: many took understandable but ultimately misguided issue with their nascent flirtations with fascist imagery, and frontman Elias Bender Ronnenfelt’s hoarse, strangled vocal (which this writer once heard described as “sounding like he’s about to be sick”) polarises opinion. Yet this is a band who inspire real fervour, positive or otherwise, and although that alone isn’t reason enough to ignore their downfalls, it is significant. After all, how many other rock bands, and stylistically familiar(ish) ones at that, can make a similar claim?
‘Beyondless’ is Iceage’s fourth album, and upon first glance, it largely picks up from where their third LP, ‘Plowing Into The Field of Love’, left off. On that record, the band radically expanded upon the brutal, gothic punk of their earlier material by way of a psychogeographical shift; whereas the first two records were resolutely Northern European, clenched-jawed garage rock beasts, shaded by the murky branches of Norwegian black metal and the dour chimneys of English post-punk, ‘Plowing…’ relocated Iceage to a nightmarish, scorched version of the American south.
The fundamentals of the group – juddering, time-shifting percussion, caustic-yet-catchy guitar work, and Ronnenfelt’s unmistakable vocal – remained, yet the instrumentation was considerably more open and diverse. A yearning violin here, a rousing horn swell there… this was new ground for this still-young quartet. Yet they inhabited it admirably, concocting several career highlights from materials that would hardly have seemed obvious bedfellows with the razor-wire punk aesthetic with which they made their name. ‘Beyondless’, then, is the sound of a band settling further into this new skin, more confident, articulate and – whisper it – mature than ever before.
I hate to use that m-word, but it’s difficult to escape it here. Make no mistake, Iceage have not capitulated to the relative comforts of global renown by retreating into safe, money-making territory, but the neurotic, nihilistic youth that permeated much of their earlier material has been superseded by something much more muscular and self-assured.
This is a record that for all its darkness, to which I’ll return shortly, does not mope or recede: it fucking swaggers. The Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds comparison is obvious, and has been made of this band many times already, but it’s worth reiterating, if only for one reason. For all of their astonishing stagecraft and technical prowess, the true power of Cave, Ellis et al, certainly in their most recent incarnation, is one of transformation: misery into determination, solipsism into bravado, torture into transcendence. Iceage share that gift, and although there certainly are stylistic parallels to be drawn between them and those great Australians, it is in this way that the two groups are both most similar and most different. Cave and Ronnenfelt are both capable of breath-taking feats of transformational performance, but each approaches the project in the only way he can: as himself, and himself alone.
For, as fantastic as much of the instrumentation is on ‘Beyondless’, this is Ronnenfelt’s album, more so than anything his band have released before. He lays himself bare here, presenting us with his uglinesses as much his talents. What a strange, complicated song ‘Painkiller’ is, for example. Over his bandmates’ fried, coursing garage romp, he details a broken relationship in a tone that manages to be at once vindictive and self-flagellating: it’s not misanthropic as such, but there’s little love to be found. By the time we reach the final chorus (on which he’s joined, sympathetically enough, by Sky Ferreira), the refrain “rue the day you became my painkiller” has gone from an expression of personal failure to a furious threat.
Indeed, a sense of threat pervades much of this album; rather than mounting an unflinching assault on his songs as he so often did in the early days of this band, Ronnenfelt stalks these tracks, toying with them menacingly, and pouncing only at the most opportune, effective moments. As such, there’s a good deal more space here than on previous albums, as Iceage begin to exude the confidence to allow their music to breathe a little. Of course, the frontman’s work with Marching Church informs many of the arrangements here, but he benefits greatly from the focusing effect of his old bandmates. With Marching Church, Ronnenfelt still appeared an imposing figure, but his ambition occasionally overflowed into indulgence when cut adrift from the hardcore strictures of Iceage. Yet throughout those Marching Church records, he presented himself as a writer of real scope and undeniable linguistic ability, and he emerges here a markedly more able, nuanced lyricist.
Take ‘Showtime’, for example; a prime slice of post-punk vaudeville over which Ronnenfelt spins a lucid, sinister yarn. He plays his role as deranged master of ceremonies impeccably, striking an unsettling balance between camp and menace as his lurid scene-setting is coloured by flickers of evil, which disappear out of sight as he peacocks along to the next line: “The seats have been bought / Overcoats taken off / The reviews, they were off the charts… / The anticipation is practically steaming the in the room… / Laurence Olivier was an old beast…” He’s capable of far greater subtlety than ever before, and although some may miss the brute force of his early vocalisations, overall this is a welcome development.
It’s also important to acknowledge the influence of Ronnenfelt’s other side project, Var, on this record. Yes, the erotic-industrial synthscapes of that group are nowhere to be found, but elements of its billowing gloom pop up here and there. On ‘Catch It’, the gaunt, deep-set guitar lines and feral middle section nod towards the same gothy mid-’80s forefathers as Var’s ‘No-one Dances Quite Like My Brothers’. To be honest, it’d be weird if these cross-pollinations were absent; after all, Ronnenfelt is one of those performers who creates a fully-realised world around himself, and it makes sense traces of its other constituencies are consistently detectable in the output of his main project.
Perhaps only bettered by the swooning, bleakly romantic ‘Take It All’, ‘Catch It’ is the arguable highlight here; a lurching, heady beast that is as much bludgeon as ballad. It’s on this track that Ronnenfelt’s distinctive combination of drawling charisma and curl-lipped threat is foregrounded most prominently, his presence looming above the clamour and anguish whipped up by his bandmates. It’s also worth noting the development in his vocal on ‘Beyondless’; the careering yowl of old, with its somewhat tempestuous relationship with tuneful accuracy, has largely been usurped by a more controlled, throaty bellow, more commanding than angst-ridden.
What’s impressive, however, is that the oppressive desperation that’s always been the key to Iceage’s music remains; far from being whittled away in the name of composure, it has simply been, again, relocated, press-ganged out of the black metal shadows of the first two records and deposited into the heat-haze of rusting machinery and tumbleweed emptiness. Ronnenfelt is still simultaneously angry and forlorn, threatening and threatened, triumphant and vulnerable – the only change is that he can hold a tune a little better these days. For all its (relative) timbral levity, this is still a dirgey, damning listen. Neither of those things, please note, are criticisms.
But ‘Beyondless’ isn’t quite Iceage’s finest album – that’s still ‘You’re Nothing’, a record that managed to both further sharpen the brutal, no-frills potency of ‘New Brigade’ and clear the ground for the ambitious, expansive textures this band have explored since. Yet, as if further proof were needed, this record reiterates that this is a singularly powerful group, whose influences are brazenly displayed, yet frequently transcended. Doubtlessly, they’ll have their naysayers, those defenders of the punk-rock flame who baulk at the slightest hint of instrumental adventurism (see also: “real music” whoppers).
But in truth, were Iceage ever really a “pure” punk band? ‘New Brigade’ owed as much to Mayhem, Slayer and Bauhaus as it did to Black Flag, Crass or Minor Threat, resulting in an all the more thrilling sound because of that, and they’ve hardly reined themselves in since their debut. They’re an exceptional band, and although ‘Beyondless’ isn’t an exceptional record, it is a very good one.