To Iceage, With Love
The Danish group's new album 'Beyondless' is wonderful. Fuck the facts, Iceage are the greatest rock and roll band in the world.
“It's too much for one man. On the other hand what's the good of losing heart now, that's what I say. We should have thought of it a million years ago, in the nineties”
-Vladimir, Waiting For Godot
To love Iceage is to love wildly, without rhyme or reason. It’s to throw earlier, concurrent, and future aesthetic judgements to hell, your theories on craft when they couldn’t play and your defense of primitsim now that they can. To love Iceage is to be 15 again and be near tears trying to explain to your parents why Nirvana are in fact superior to The Beatles. It’s to argue poetry with the taxman, which is what I call Hold Steady fans. It’s to want to make mixtapes for your dealer and always ask to be on the list It’s to annoy your girlfriend. It’s to annoy everyone’s girlfriend. To love Iceage is to wake up holding your breath till March 24th, 2020 when Elias Bender Rønnenfelt will turn 28 and you can finally exhale, knowing that he won’t go the way of Jim Morrison and Cobain and Winehouse, that he may grow into the hair thinning Cave-ian aristocrat you’ll hope he’ll be. To love Iceage is to beat against the chest of death. It’s dumb. It’s pointless. You should probably be taking your own pulse, but here we are.
Iceage—formed in 2008 in Copenhagen by four improbably handsome teenage boys raised on Swedish hardcore and Killed By Death rarities—are famously difficult to interview. This can be attributed to a language barrier, though even in the Danish national TV documentary the band members keep their answers as close to monosyllabic as possible. When they do talk, they talk about art like it’s a concern of life or death, with an arsenal of high brow references as a bullet belt. I don’t finish Iceage interviews for the same reason I didn’t finish college: I don’t like good looking people who may be smarter than me and I don’t like French poetry. Not liking people prettier than myself should go without explanation, life is hard enough thanks, and, since I was 15, when my father’s boyfriend gave me my first Richard Hell and Patti Smith albums, I suspected the deleterious effect Baudelaire could have on a rocker.
The first time I heard of Iceage was from a 2011 rave review in punk bible, Maximum RocknRoll, comparing the band of Danish post-teens to the barely competent post-punk of Crisis. I rushed to my computer to order the first album, New Brigade, which was first on Danish label Escho then briefly on Dais and finally on What’s Your Rupture (I’d eventually buy a separate copy from each label), before the other nerds, drunk on Crazy Spirit cassettes and the electric junkie thrill of online record ordering, managed to snatch up the limited copies available. A few days after New Brigade arrived, I ran into a friendly skinhead neighbor walking his dog and he was equally caught up. We stood on the corner of Metropolitan and Lorimer, practically hugging each other in team enthusiasm. Here, apparently, was the street punk Joy Division the new century had promised and thus far failed to deliver.
By the time Iceage played their first show in NYC, a Northside Fest Stereogum/Sacred Bones showcase, in June of 2011, the music blogs had gotten a hold of them and were promising some sort of stiff collar Strokes revival. The sold out crowd at Public Assembly was visibly nonplussed at the shambolic shitshow of pale fury that took the stage after Anasazi. Iceage sounded like they’d just been introduced to their instruments for the first time and, frankly, they didn’t much care for them. They also appeared to be entirely wasted. Those of us that expected a bunch of rail thin aryan troglodytes playing hardcore were delighted beyond measure. Everyone else crossed their arms and dreamt of Interpol.
The next night, Iceage played a punk warehouse in Bushwick, in a room where drugs and alcohol and presumably meat were forbidden. They played to about a dozen bemused members of the opening bands and the refrigerator. In the hallway, over a hundred leather and spiked punks drank beer, refusing to set foot within the newly hyped and hipstered parameter. Iceage were great, confused and confusing, baby vikings (or whatever) crossing the threshold, but I still spent most my money on a Goosebumps shirt depicting a creep doing lines of coke off a face-level table.
Iceage are now, as they were then—if we agree that we’re all wearing black because we prefer our languages dead—the greatest rock and roll band in the world.
If any punk album should aspire to be a masterpiece, and if canon was even a remotely cool thing to be part of, then New Brigade is a masterpiece—and if hyperbole is the stain of the current music writing landscape, this the hill of complicity I’ll die on. Twelve songs in less than a half hour, Rubber Soul as upper-driven pseudo goth. Pushed into hyper-sincerity by Rønnenfelt’s aristocratic moan, it’s a monument to post-adolescent, drunk on life, vigor, and sweat. Every song as much a youth crew anthem as New York at its varsity lettered best ever made.
The third time I saw Iceage was later in 2011 at a Secret Project Robot show with Crazy Spirit, Raspberry Bulbs, and Perdition. The crowd at Secret Project was more game to Iceage’s loose approach to showmanship but when the singer of one of the opening bands threw, full force, a weighted mic stand into the sold out crowd, it was clear that the local punx were still wrestling with the tensions of new Williamsburg scum’s newfound appreciation of d-beat and runic conflict.
Speaking of runic conflict, let’s get Iceage’s politics out of the way. From the jump, the band has been followed by rumors of sketchy politics, largely because of the early name dropping of German fascist band Absurd, guitarist Johan Surrballe Wieth having a Death In June tattoo, zine drawings that Elias drew of klan members, and some filmed sieg heiling from audience members at early Danish shows. This, put together, is... a lot to look past. I’ve denounced artists for less. So why do I give Iceage a pass, assuming that I’m not entirely compromised by fandom? Well, generally because I think they were genuine morons as young(er) men, truly unaware of the larger implications of their postures, and specifically because they, upon leaving their Denmark bubble, quickly did what I ask of any accused band: they addressed the concerns, and did so without obfuscation. They didn’t cite pagan philosophers or talk vaguely of strength and purity and nature, and they never cried that people were too sensitive, the left too intolerant. While stating that their music wasn’t political is, you know, incorrect, because all music is. They at least didn’t use the code of “apolitical” while merrily planting their lil’ rune flag in the territory of aesthetics and beauty. Most importantly they state that they are left wing and, unlike some in their position who hedge their bets with talk of “maintaining culture” or “Muslim invasions,” the band, in interviews, is vocally pro-immigrant and anti-fascist.
Iceage’s early foolishness doesn’t seem to extend past an ill advised adolescent look, their take on rock and roll (an African-American medium) and its tropes remains weird and interesting enough. Unlike the Clash or U2, Iceage don’t seem overly impressed by American iconography, but also they don’t seem terribly impressed by Nordic or American or, really, any culture at all. Culture as a collective formed art seems like a mere distraction for the individual to them. Lyrically, the band has always talked about youth and dissolution as an existential condition. It’s no surprise that Richard Hell is a fan when the songs are less French poetry than Television’s Marquee Moon streamlined for Oi! Speed and impact. While there’s a fine line between Tom Verlaine singing about dressing like cops and seeing what we can do and Rønnenfelt’s somewhat more vague poetic allusions to staying up late as a mutiny in heaven, it’s no less hogwash than the diaristic impulses of so many of their rock peers.
The second Iceage album, their first on Matador, is You’re Nothing and I’m pretty sure that everyone who claimed to love it when it came out was lying. On the first hundred or so listens all I could hear was martial drums and guitars that sound like open hi-hats. The record sounded almost improvised in its lack of tunes. Bass player Jakob Tvilling Pless moving ahead of the band on his own accord, without any consideration of supplies even while the rest of the band goes full Donner party. Elias sounds exhausted, like he’s breathing under water; a rasp in opposition to pop punk. Even as someone whose professional brand is deeply invested in loving Iceage, it took me years to embrace this collection of contemptuous blurts and songs that seemed to stop and start of their own accord or by some pagan chaos majik I wasn’t privy to. But just like I learned to love whiskey, for good or ill, I came around. Leaving the easy if tortured sexiness of Ian Curtis behind, You’re Nothing scolds from a place of overly distorted jangle-pop, with, on songs like “Wounded Hearts,” the occasional mid-period Fugazi post-hardcore guitar line stabbing out from the confusion. It is the sound of million skinheads with a million guitars ending up with the Flying Nun catalog. Basically it’s their folk record.
You’re Nothing was followed by the seven-inch To the Comrades. The A side is pretty good, a rawhide and organ driven hint of the cow-punk antics to come. But god bless and save the b-side, a cover of the Sinead O’Connor song, “Jackie.” Sinead’s first album, The Lion and The Cobra, is one of the epically under-appreciated albums of our time. Partially because of dated production gloss and partially overshadowed by “Nothing Compares To You” and years in the wilderness, The Lion And The Cobra is an emotionally devastating records, with sublime singing and lyrics that are equal parts mists of avalon and the realest dirt and clay a true artist can possibly express.
The fourth time I saw Iceage was at SXSW in 2014. I saw them on a roof and afterwards helped myself to the for-the-bands-only schwag that the sub Fred Perry clothing company had on racks in the their green room. I keep meaning to put that damn newsboy cap up on eBay. Iceage played with The Spits which is no easy task but Denmark’s finest were by this point fully in their Gun Club era and if they seemed disinterested to be there it fit the ouvre. Whether one considers Iceage a “good” live band is contingent on how one sees the glass half empty/half full conundrum. Do you see a ship sinking or a ship rising, with all those deckchair musicians instantaneously, miraculously knowing how to play “Nearer My God To Thee”? Started from the bottom, now we’re the Titanic, if you know what I’m saying. I’m rarely on the side of perfection when the ocean is the alternative.
Iceage’s transition to Nick Cave and Kid Congo drenched Americana coincided nicely with New York punks also trading in their shoelace headbands for silver-button button-downs. Cocaine is a hell of a drug thank god and if it doesn’t kill you or lead you to Wall Street, you grow your hair out and start a gothic spaghetti western band. 2014’s Plowing Into the Field of Love is Iceage truly coming into its oversexed black cowboy hat own. Mind you, Iceage sings of a love that’s outwardly obsessive and inwardly solipsistic, a sensuality entirely divorced from the act of fucking. I can’t imagine anyone in any of these songs maintaining an erection or being wet, and that’s not a complaint. It’s the music of going home shaking after that last bump goes sideways, nestling into your lover’s armpit, passing out while Jules & Jim is projecting against the wall, waking up in the afternoon, waking up and tending to your honey bunny’s nausea, getting a plate of onion rings to share, knowing that’s the meal of the day, killing time till the opening band is half way done at ten, going out and doing it all over again. Iceage will help you pick your outfit. You hold up two pairs of heels. Whatever Iceage picks, the other pair is what you go with. It may not last as a relationship, one can only take so many unanswered texts at 5 AM, but every stable sap who comes after will be judged in comparison and be found wanting. Admittedly though, once Iceage is erased from your contacts, it’ll be nice to have someone who actually listens and you’ll probably be grateful to finally have some help with the rent. Maybe Iceage was living the life worth living all along, but you can’t plan your future on maybees.
Anyway, that’s what Plowing Into the Field of Love sounds like. Also, like I said, The Gun Club. Even if Iceage still looked more like The Star Spangles than The Bad Seeds, when they started coming back to the city, ladies and men of a certain age and eye-shadow frequented the after parties exponentially.
The rollout to Beyondless, Iceage’s new album, has been real fancy. Leading off with an essay by Richard Hell, naming all the books Iceage has read, like that’s a fucking net positive. Like name dropping Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye; Peter Shaffer’s Equus; Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea; Genet’s Thief’s Journal and Miracle of the Rose; The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau is something to be proud of, rather than a basic bitch’s guide to transgression, a perfectly goofy libertine starter kit. OK, maybe not Mishima, but Jesus God, maybe Mishima ain’t the look if you just got past the fascism kerfuffle. And, no sir, I haven’t read most of these books, but I’ve sure as shit been avoiding their advocates since I quit working at The Strand. I’m happy to be the dumbest person in the room, but I don’t want to wonder what happened to my guitar strings and the good silver after everybody leaves. At least the additional press pack essay by Total Control’s Daniel Stewart has the good sense to make Leonard Cohen and (considering the heft and size of new Iceage music, extremely apt) Waterboys comparisons.
My arguably idiotic, insecurity driven aversion to a recommended syllabus aside, I’m pleased to announce that Beyondless is wonderful. Full of psychedelic slouch and swagger, like Spiritualized playing a Madchester rave, the album is almost suspiciously accessible, but dozens of listens later, Beyondless hasn’t worn out its welcome. Part of this because of Iceage’s oft-overlooked drummer. Even as Iceage’s pallette expands to, well, The Gun Club for a while, and now a weird Velvet Underground/Happy MondaysWaterboys combo, Dan Kjær Nielsen, still plays like Bill Stevenson looking for a dishonorable discharge from My War, or whatever war you got. The rest of the band is in full command of their instruments and, for once, I don’t mean that as a slur. I’m ready for Iceage album to make sense the first time around. Also, the record contains Elias’ best lyrics since New Brigade. That first album had great lyrics because they were basically cave paintings, crude representations of something primal. On Beyondless there are still occasionally deeply silly lines. I say that as someone who’s no stranger to writing teenage poetry as an adult. But “occasionally deeply silly” is a fair price for ambition, and this time around Rønnenfelt is lyrically and vocally unfettered in his reach for some profane grandeur that’ll hopefully get him to (a) home.
Some of the pop decadent aspects of Beyondless may be due to Sky Ferreira, one the better alternative pop composers in contemporary music. Sky adds her voice to the fine collection of songs and, along with tasteful but not excessively so horns, helps make Beyondless Iceage’s proper rock and a roll record. The lead off single, “Catch It,” is accompanied by a video featuring Elias casting finger spells like Shaun Ryder in his short-lived drugged out prime and the other songs live up this (to my mind) promise. The loose Stonesy vibe is also reminiscent of the tragically unmourned San Francisco band, The Vue, a band who was critically reviled but also ruled so I suppose we’ll just see how the PR fueled winds blow on Beyondless’s reception. If there’s one thing I know about how critical consensus works, it’s that I understand less than nothing.
Part of my loving Iceage is my fully believing that they, like The Rolling Stones, like The Clash, are somewhat full of shit and my not caring in the slightest. The songs on Beyondless do seem inspired by French poetry and I just don’t care about a motherfucker’s absinthe intake and when Rønnenfelt repeats “make it real” over and over again on “Catch It,” all I can think of is the Les McCann song, later covered by Roberta Flack, where Les lays out a litany of Very Not Poetry Driven grievances and ends each phrase with “try to make it real...compared to what?” What I ask of Iceage, to be both as heavenly-punching pompous as they can possibly dream, while still inhabiting all the grit of the world, is an impossible tension. Even Nick Cave only occasionally achieves it and he has a veritable army of caustic old men in sharp suits to keep him grounded. But anyway my affection for Iceage is largely based on the ineffable.
Fuck the facts and I don’t know why I adore them, why they’re one of the few bands that can still conjure that strange keening a teenage me felt for Fugazi and Nirvana and (briefly) Cypress Hill. And, like those bands, I don’t know that an intellectual argument can adequately make a case for their greatness. And so what. Nerds agreeing with me is neither food nor sleep; I can possibly make due without. Or maybe I can’t. I mean, anecdotally speaking, here I am, making my case, hoping you might love Iceage too.
Unlike some favorite bands, I have no special memories attached to listening to the music Iceage. Nobody died or broke my heart or kissed me for the first time while Iceage was playing on the dial. At least not yet, but I’d like to think, perhaps foolishly, that most of my adventures and trauma are in the rearview mirror. I want to stay with my girl and for my loved ones to live forever and, all things being equal, that might happen, right? Like I said, being smart isn’t my number one concern. I’ll hopefully remain Iceage’s number one fan, white straight male over 40 division, based purely on their music and both for how it makes me feel when I’m drunk in a room and soberly dissecting it for cash. It’s a strange fandom, one I doubt they’d appreciate, coupled as it is with my inability to not be a bit of a jerk about them. But Iceage is my favorite band, not the bosses of me, so they’ll have to take my love as it’s offered. Baby, ain’t that the world.
The fifth and last time I saw Iceage, as part of their promotional concert series with dates at locations all over the world, the Williamsburg audience was punk free (unless you count one of the dudes from Nothing), full of well-dressed hep cats and critics. The band—pasty and exuding too much junkie business casual and cool—slurred through a sax drenched set consisting only of new songs. It was placid and fantastic, with the crowd swaying and grinning at each other. We knew what to expect and we got it. At the after party, after most people left, Elias was in the corner consoling Sky over something. He was in a trenchcoat far too big for him, like three Iceages stacked, attempting to get into an NC-17 movie. The DJ was fully intoxicated and playing Oingo Boingo I bet. It was, frankly, absurd. Absurdity being the true capital of poets and rock and rollers alike. And me, an adventureless voyeur, realizing I was rudely staring, looked away. When I got home, I prosaically did some drugs, fixed myself a drink, put on Beyondless again (I assume...who knows. Let’s say I did), passed out and into the delirium bands like Iceage promise. Meaning I went to sleep with my pants and shoes on, and I don’t remember what I dreamt; maybe trains derailing on time, sexy weekends in hell.
Zachary Lipez is a writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.