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Iceage - "Beyondless" | Album Review


by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)

Admittedly, some of the thrill of watching Iceage’s career develop and flourish has been a pleasure born from incongruity. At first it was the tableau of a group a uber-youthful Danish would-be models playing cacophonous black-metal-infused punk music, selling branded switchblades at shows, and never coming off as anything less than genuinely threatening. However, as years wore on, the band presented a shift in not only presentation, but also stylistic ambitions. With 2014’s Plowing Into the Field of Love, the band depicted itself as Nick Cave devotees, deliberately slowing down the train by hammering their already brutalized instruments into the ground to slow the tempos down without losing any of the violence and vitality that characterized their early music. With their third record the band began varying instrumentation, introducing more ballads, as famously slurring frontman Elias Bender Ronnenfelt concentrated on enunciation (if there ever is such a thing in his vocal performance). However, despite the changes, the band still clearly understood the pleasure that audiences took in the incongruity of their first iteration. What Iceage 2.0 still understand is how to recontextualize that same dynamic within a different set of parameters. Now on the band’s fourth outing, Beyondless, they are learning to define and finely tune themselves as a Danish band playing distinctly American music and toying with distinctly American themes.

Over the course of the album the band veers between rock classicism and Western swagger, letting drums gallop, guitars criss, cross, and then clash, all while frontman Ronnenfelt mumbles, spits, and gnashes over the newly streamlined discord. Equal parts din and clarity, early single “Pain Killer” set barrels onto the scene with barroom brass before erupting into the most liberating guitar lead in the band’s career. The song is a clear red herring as it’s the most straightforward moment of the record, replete with guest vocals from Sky Ferreira, maybe the only guest vocalist who can challenge Ronnenfelt to a gasping contest. Warts and all the song amounts to a near complete success, despite the fact that the slick horns never feel entirely at home on the song, nor do the strained strings, however, all of the discord created by these elements, the clanging guitars, and the breathless vocals serves to pronounce the clarity on display when that singular guitar lead erupts after the chorus. The feeling of release in this moment is unlike any the band have attempted up to this point and all of the faults and all of the highlights suddenly come into focus as deliberate in the best way.

Maybe focusing on the catchiest single is crass in 2018, but “Pain Killer” also works as a microcosm on what they accomplish over the course of the entire album, a complete control of their ability to convey both beauty and violence. Songs like openers “Hurrah” and “Pain Killer” might work as ornery and blunt rockers, but with a closer look both reveal pointed critiques of violence. Nursing a “dumb” chorus, “Hurrah” uses the monotony and indifference of Ronnenfelt’s performance to highlight the omnipresent Banality of Evil, whereas “Pain Killer” recounts a sordid tale of love addiction. Though the rest of the album might stray from the energy of these initial tracks Ronnenfelt’s lyrical bite never does and the band contributes enough stylistic diversity to ensure the listenership stays engaged.

When the band isn’t burning the house down with ragers like “Hurrah” or “The Day the Music Died” they are catering to a smokier and strut-prone version of themselves, equal parts drunken stumble and inherent swagger. Songs like “Under the Sun and “Catch It”'s languorous rhythms and slurred vocals make for some of the least inspired writing on the album, but never serve as anything less than fascinating due, again, to Ronnenfelt’s daft lyricism and the band’s inability to write a dull chorus.

It isn’t until the final four tracks that the album really cements itself a singular entry in Iceage’s already-impressive catalogue. “Thieves Like Us” showcases the band at their Westerbergian finest. Quickening as it chugs along and Ronnenfelt’s observations of modern American indifference become more feverish before he’s literally howling with passion.  Another early single “Take it All” stands out as the most meditative instrumental the band has ever written. Reverb-drenched guitars roll out over a backdrop of martial drums and strings before Ronnenfelt passionately intones “If you want to reap me/ take it all away.” Here we find the singer at his most resigned and the music follows suit. In a world bent on taking, the music simply drips out of itself, like blood seeping from a wound and in the same way Ronnenfelt performs his own blood-letting as he repeatedly implores us to “take it all away.”

Finally, the album’s penultimate track “Showtime” is a beautiful slow-build to a stomping show number unlike anything the band have produced.  While the song simmers for two and a half minutes, piano and horns slowly introduce themselves for the second half's suicidal drunken burlesque before segueing into the near-shoegaze of the closing titular track, which serves as a fitting send off in that it simultaneously mines their ferocious punk roots while also pushing it into the filthy grey-smeared impressionism of shoegaze.

One of the first discernible words uttered on the record is “highway” and come the end it’s easy to see why: the record not only seems greatly indebted to distinctly American pastiche, but it also refuses to dedicate itself to any one singular style, mimicking the diversity of folks and experiences afforded by a good old-fashioned cross-country road trip. As a career marker this certainly does feel like the culmination of everything that came before, but still, it falls just short of being called a classic. Though some might consider that a let down, I see it more as fuel for our anticipation.