We Saw This: Iceage
2013 is a pretty abominable place to be a purist.
Few musicians have been forced to confront that more abruptly than Johan Surrballe Wieth, Jakob Tviling Pless, Dan Klær Nielsen and Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, the Copenhagen quartet who first charted on the American Buzz-O-Meter two or so years ago and have since become the bellwether band of a mystical, idyllic promised land known as the Danish punk scene. American critics have been utterly transfixed by the fierce, alien novelty of the pulsing echoes and furious howls that hold together their international debut, 2011's New Brigade, and have rejoiced at the notion that Iceage may keep the punk torch burning bright into this brave new world where the Internet makes a mockery out of everything that calls itself honest. But what does that torch even look like at this point?
Traditional punk, the punk of yore, the punk that has had its time of death reported ad nauseam for decades, was born out of alienation and discontent; personal, social, political, or otherwise, and was made to draw a sonic line in the sand that separated its adherents from the sheep that grazed on the pop monoculture. Iceage of course bears these markers conspicuously; that, coupled with their dipping in other more spatial, industrial genres (goth, noise, post-punk), is what makes them so irresistible to their tastemaking apostles.
But it's pretty much impossible, now, for discontent to fester in a secluded scene, because the second you open your laptop, you can rest assured that thousands of other people are just as restless as you are. That impossibility has permitted monumental social awakenings (for example, what Occupy has been able to do for Hurricane Sandy victims that the Red Cross couldn't), but the "traditional" definition alienation has never experienced an era friendlier to its sufferers, has it? Sure, it's been cool for, like, half a century to be pissed off, but when has it been so easy to find a release?
Those are the parameters within which white-dude punk bands like Iceage are forced to air their dissent. And they rise to the top largely because they partake in a prickly exchange that goes on right now in music (or any artistic medium, really). It's an exchange that demands a truce, a highly volatile treaty between the Game and the Truth. It's a symbiotic give and take that means hiring a trendy publicist, becoming Interpol's labelmate (Iceage announced its signing to Matador in November), and giving often mildly interested crowds an entertaining show in order to sow whatever seeds of dissatisfaction and protest you can to as many aggregated listeners as possible. In that way, Iceage must become more of a martyr for the afflictions of punk's tenets than a lightning conduit that encourages an alienated minority to claim ownership of itself and its environment. They represent it brilliantly onstage, but offstage, there seems to be an understanding that they're more comfortable, successful, and more of a real career band than that now.
Which is to say that, while the legendary Iceage origin stories about bleeding moshpit casualties and explosive crowds still inform the band's character, whatever that totally batshit animal was, it was more feral than the one that, two or three years later, kicked off its new tour this weekend.
The way that Iceage dealt with that aforementioned compromise at Brooklyn's 285 Kent Friday night and at the Lower East Side's Home Sweet Home on Saturday is pretty much the quintessential Rock Success Blueprint of 2013. Functionally, their onstage instrumentals surprisingly don't diverge from the norm. (May it be denied vehemently by "true fans" from here to Copenhagen for all eternity, but if you had excluded Rønnenfelt's hypnotic, dead-eyed undulations from the Iceage live equation, what you would've had left was a highly disciplined yet still basic garage trio whose melodies and speed-chords could easily have descended from a DeLonge/Hoppus/Barker pop-punk heritage.) The stripping of the echoing gothic clangs and cavernous post-punk space that give both New Brigade and next month's You're Nothing (their Matador debut) their sparkle is not a damning quality, though it does shed some light on the mild surprise some Danish punk fans have reportedly exhibited at the band's sudden success in America over a bunch of other Copenhagen punk bands that share their general aesthetic. (It would seem that the transatlantic-divide phenomenon that finds obscure and/or run-of-the-mill Brooklyn acts unexpected fame overseas also works in reverse.) They're technically skilled; they're just dull as chalk to watch. That can't have always been the case, can it?
Anyway, the way frontman/singer/ghost-orphan Elias Bender Rønnenfelt deals with this "compromise" of sorts, though, that's a whole different story. Whatever x-factor gives Iceage its magic punk powers most certainly lies in the therapy-denied psyche of its leader. Wearing a knockoff Burberry scarf tied around his torso like a Boy Scout sash, the kid swung his limbs and torso around in swooping pendulum strokes, fully possessed by the task of giving a gut-pounding sermon for the slobbering, moshing masses to remember. Either he's getting trainwreck-drunk every night before his band's set, or he does an Oscar-worthy portrayal of a trainwreck drunk; it would be safe to bet that it varies from night to night between the two, considering (a) what people expect from an Iceage show, and (b) what the band must think of some of their audiences now that their Klout score has increased. He flails and screams, hardly batting an eye when someone throws a firework that explodes on the mic. It's utterly spellbinding, but I also can't help but think about the bizarrely placed yet telling blip in Iceage's Narduwar interview (it starts at about 1:34 and lasts no more than 13 seconds):
The wide stage of Brooklyn's 285 Kent gave the quartet almost too much freedom (Pless, Nielsen and Wieth remain firmly, almost distractedly planted in tight formation, while Rønnenfelt takes care of the show), but the tiny platform at the Lower East Side's Home Sweet Home was a vastly more fitting station for their controlled chaos: Rønnenfelt swung from the low-hanging rafters, leering and owning the audience's rapt attention like a child preacher as they swayed and timidly pushed one another in the small space. (Had it been a basement venue in any other town, perhaps mosh blood would have been spilt.)
But both nights felt somewhat mottled. It might've been how excited a few girls at Home Sweet Home looked to be wearing black lipstick and giant-heeled combat boots, possibly for the first time. It might've been the gleefully fresh "Wow, punk is cool!" expressions on half of the (99% white, maybe 85% male) faces in 285 Kent. It might've been the way, when someone shouted derisively, "Nice scarf!" at Rønnenfelt, he stared blankly into the crowd with a look that bore a striking resemblance to a bullied high schooler nearing the end of his rope. Okay, let's be real: it was definitely all of those things.
A ticket-holder's desire to "dress up" at all to go to a punk show is exactly the other end of the bargain Iceage has made. Australia Day revelers with flag stickers on their cheeks can gleefully participate in underground culture for an hour, consume dissatisfaction and rebellion symbolically. (The Australia Day kids left halfway through the set, out of either boredom or because of wasted, jumping-up-and-down illness.) It's not that the fans Iceage accrue as they expand all identify with its music. Instead the music provides an escape: for the brief moment when he goes careening forward, propelled by a flat-palmed shove in the shoulder blades, the fantasy comes to life, and he is the punk he wished he had the guts to have been in high school. Disenfranchisement at one's leisure is a relevant phrase that comes to mind. And it's possible that that's what Iceage has had to become, a quasi-simulacrum of its forebears, to succeed, however real that discontent is for them and for the scene that birthed them.
It's a significant social and professional move to sign to a seminal, name-y label like Matador (who, to their credit, have generally done right by their radical artists regardless of critical credibility), as it allows music originally fueled by unadulterated rage and idealism to be traded in hip neighborhoods as a cultural tourist attraction. Could a yuppie in a flannel shirt have walked into a punk show in 1983 and gotten his wiggles out by trying to start what he imagined a mosh pit looked like? Would he have even known where the punk shows were held?
It's certainly possible that this is just the New York effect talking; this city's (and thereby our) unique ability to run anything good through its meat grinder of reblog/retweet cynicism is awe-inspiring at best, a gaping maw of horror and postmodern sadness at worst. The hardcore art show that Iceage and their friends (members of Merchandise, Screaming Females, and Crazy Spirit, among others) assembled in the gallery space Home Sweet Home's upstairs neighbor Figure 19 filled in some of the gaps, though, while Pharmakon, the particularly exceptional of the two opening acts that second night, unleashed, along with an intimidating curtain of corn-silk hair, her screaming, pulsing, rumbling, noise glory on some wholly unsuspecting audience members, filling the gaps that remained. (Her quick performance, due in part to how much time it took her to set up and soundcheck her equipment, was the least predictable and the most rewarding of the night).
Recent conversations about punk scenes (at least the ones to which I've been privy) have usually fallen on one of two sides: a scene is too exclusive – the patrons of such-and-such venue are aggressive and unwelcoming, or it's an all-inclusive DIY scene whose wares find their way online, thus becoming easy prey for buzz-birthing marketing apparatuses and, worse, us despicably insatiable bloggers, who doggedly pick over its parts and then spread its gospel, or dilute the whole point of the art, depending on who you're talking to. Iceage might've belonged to the former once, but just as growing up teaches you that moral absolutes don't survive past childhood, so there is no effective punk in 2013 wholly untainted, and so perhaps Iceage must suffer the slings and arrows of the latter, at the cost of some of its honor, to maintain its up-and-outward survival.