Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Iceage Plows Into a Brave New World

Something's still rotten in Denmark.
By    November 10, 2014

Douglas Martin is now watching a French cop show.

Iceage have always been a band that prefers to carry this bleak, insistent quality about them like a coat of arms — or more accurately, a rebel insignia patch. The title of their debut album was New Brigade, for Pete’s sake. Of course, they came at a time where it seemed as though guitar music fans were looking for a hungry new band of self-serious punks, so they were fast-tracked to the top of the ‘Bands to Watch’ shortlist. Which is not to say their debut wasn’t as auspicious as people (present company included) were saying it was. Because it was.

More so than it being visceral and energetic, the Iceage of New Brigade didn’t give themselves time to lay out their weaknesses; many qualities were prevalent throughout the band’s debut, most of all was their critical sense of urgency. The quartet played as if they were in a burning building, plowing through their songs before they go up in flames with the implicit knowledge that they were the ones who started the fire in the first place. Whatever influences they carried were dismantled so quickly, so forcefully, and with so much emotion, it was challenging to deny the band their propers as part of an emerging vanguard of punk music. If you were of the opinion that the genre had gotten soft, listening to New Brigade was like stepping on a knife.

You’re Nothing didn’t exactly up the ante of Iceage’s artistic prowess, but it did add some color to their grey landscape. There were moments on their debut — most notably “Remember” and “You’re Blessed” — where they seemed to demonstrate some wide-eyed sincerity, but somewhere between Albums One and Two, Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s voice became more expressive. As a result, there were songs on You’re Nothing that sounded more desperate, more browbeaten, and in the case of “Ecstasy” and “Morals,” downright romantic.

Regardless of the brief flashes of growth both musically and lyrically, for the most part, You’re Nothing felt like a widescreen retread of their aggressively invigorating debut, more of a lateral shift than upward movement, with its slower tempos and lagging middle section ultimately jamming up the band’s progress. It was still a good album, and I don’t think Iceage will ever face a charge of being unambitious. But a change was definitely in order.

Maybe change was in the air.

The first single from Iceage’s third album was a roaring slice of facetiously self-aggrandizing rockabilly, firing a blast of scorched guitar at the many claims of Iceage not knowing how to write with any sort of levity. Of course, there’s an inner struggle in Rønnenfelt’s lyrics, but I’m pretty sure any song titled “The Lord’s Favorite” is supposed to come across as at least a little humorous. (NORE did the same thing, but it’s safe to say nobody has ever accused him of taking himself too seriously. Maybe Miss Cleo, but I wasn’t privy to those phone calls.) It showed a different side of Rønnenfelt as a lyricist, as not only was “The Lord’s Favorite” a different song lyrically than anything he’s done with Iceage, it’s also more resolutely lyrical.

As “The Lord’s Favorite” is the anomaly that sent many Iceage fans into a tailspin upon first listen (“How dare they not serve up yet another clanging, serrated punk rock song!” “How dare they express the very human emotion of lightness!”), the remainder of Plowing Into the Field of Love is about as dramatic as ever, albeit in a different way than most fans would expect. Branching out from the hardcore/post-punk hybrid they had explored over the past two full-lengths, Iceage has seemed to find a lot of ground to cover by taking the latter part of their winning formula and making it even more of a widescreen attraction than You’re Nothing was. There is a sprawl to the album heretofore unimagined in the context of Iceage. (Part of that is due to the running time of Plowing being almost double the length of New Brigade, so naturally it would feel more spacious.) The band at this point has an established sonic identity, so regardless of how many minor-key dirges are crammed into the album’s middle section, they sound unmistakably Iceage, and they have the benefit of being bolstered by a more ambitious Iceage, unafraid to add new elements (blaring trumpets! Shronking violins!) to their longer, heavier, and more dramatic songs.

Most notable is the change in lyrical focus on the album. On New Brigade, Rønnenfelt used a pretty standard meter for most of the songs and they felt more like rebel sloganeering rather than words coming from someone’s experience. That slight demerit was improved a little on You’re Nothing, but Rønnenfelt’s singing was still a far more engaging component than his lyricism. Here, throughout the album, the lyrics are delivered with more confidence and written with more pathos. As with most records that fashion themselves as an Important Statement, there are quite a few references to religion (the denial of repentance in “Against the Moon” stands out), but there is a swath of longing and, most evidently, the desperation that marked their first two records. Rønnenfelt has grown into one of the more expressive singers in punk-leaning music, so to listen to his lyrics match the range of his vocals is enough proof as to Iceage’s growth as a band.

They were once the knife-wielding punks from Copenhagen with cheekbones that made their Scandinavian heritage evident, the young gang not as much concerned with other people beckoning them to save a genre still churning out vibrant bands every day. That lack of concern is still present. Iceage are a band that moves to their own pace, fulfilling the ambitions they have set for themselves. And with the territory covered on Plowing Into the Field of Love, they ended up dramatically exceeding whatever expectations we had for them, making them not just one of the marquee names of punk in 2014, but one of the marquee names of grand-scale, epic-sounding guitar music. Their field of love is a scorched earth, but this release finds them blazing the path toward potential greatness.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!