Album Review: Iceage - Beyondless
Over the course of three albums prior to Beyondless, Iceage have proven to be surprisingly chameleonic and yet totally unmistakable. They were immediately and simply tagged as “punk” on debut album New Brigade, but those restraints were very much tested on follow up You’re Nothing, and were utterly obliterated on their third, Plowing Into The Field Of Love, an album that translated their ever-present ferocity and passion into something grandiose and indefinable. Nevertheless, their ramshackle rock, or “high octane sloppiness” as they call it, stamped their own particular brand on each of their songs, no matter how diverse – album three felt like the true Iceage. If Plowing Into The Field Of Love seemed like the peak of their creativity, then Beyondless is here to obliterate that notion: here they span the breadth of their punk roots all the way to monolithic shoegaze, with stops at elegiac odes and caustic show tunes along the way, throughout imbued by additional violins, trumpet, saxophone and trombone.
One of the main qualities that Iceage manage to maintain throughout their songs, especially on Beyondless, is a feeling of anachronism; while they’re undoubtedly a modern band, they record all analogue, they seem to time-hop and borrow from different eras, and in Elias Bender Rønnenfelt they have a singer and lyricist who spouts paeans like a drunk but utterly magnetic Shakespearean actor. The second main characteristic that Iceage’s music beholds is that they sound like the walking dead as they play, truly as if they are an undead marching band compelled by the power of music to rise up and stride onwards. Sometimes it feels as if they’re tapping into their Viking ancestors’ memories and channelling them in their music; they sound beleaguered, worn out, but determined – and they are overwhelmed by natural forces, particularly the ocean, which has always been one of Rønnenfelt’s favourite metaphors, and continues to be here.
This historic Nordic influence has never been more apparent than on Beyondless’ opening track ‘Hurrah’, which is as straight-ahead punk as they get on the record, and you can feel the mindless energy picking up and animating their weary bones as they march once more into battle, Rønnenfelt professing their bloody mission: “I'm not fighting for a country/ I'm fighting to outlast,” and the simplistic battle cry chorus: “'Cause we can't stop killing/ And we'll never stop killing/ And we shouldn't stop killing/ Hurrah.” Shot through with propulsive mandolin flecks, ‘Hurrah’ immediately whips up the storm that Iceage will be playing with throughout the album.
It is the second track, ‘Pain Killer’, that fully lets us in on Iceage’s emboldened sonic presence. It comes flying out of the gates with wings of combined brass, not merely used as an adornment, but actual muscular and hefting elements to this quicksilver anti-love post-punk song. Coupled with Sky Ferreira on vocals, the tale of mutual self-destruction in the other is carried off with class and guile, so when the pair’s intertwining vocals hit the down-and-out hook, “I rue the day you became my pain killer,” you can feel their hopeless desperation like a needle in your arm. On ‘Under The Sun’ you can hear the guitars buckling and straining to hold up Rønnenfelt’s heavy heart as he reaches out in prayer for a higher power; “Anything grown under the sun/ Or subterranean slums/ If it brings me closer to God/ I'll go there at any cost.” Just as it seems ‘Under The Sun’ might buckle completely under the weight of these confessions, a swarm of violins swoops in to lift it and carry it magisterially to its conclusion.
Despite the always heavy subject matter and bruised sound pallet, you still get the feeling that Iceage are just having a lot of fun with all the new musical options open to them. ‘The Day The Music Dies’ is a grungey dirge with plenty of boastful pomp, and ‘Plead The Fifth’ follows up with a loose-limbed swing, capped off with a carefree “la la la” outro. ‘Catch It’ is the most sweatily psychedelic song they’ve ever done; dry atmosphered desert rock with wan guitars and beseeching lyricism, which is screwed up into a warped rock out culminating in an adrenaline shot sax solo that is the aural equivalent of the rush of a triumphant and hard-fought victory. On ‘Showtime’ Elias’ tongue is planted firmly in cheek as the band creates a low-lit scene out of softly echoing feedback, shuffling percussion and doleful trumpet, into which he breathes “A bright young singer is the lead of the show/ He is as handsome as he's talented/ He's got that certain kind of je ne sais quoi/ A potential superstar.” This might seem a bit self-indulgent, but when the song morphs into baroque jazz at the end, with Rønnenfelt singing about the actor blowing his brains to a backing of beautifully arranged trumpet, trombone, sax , you can’t help but marvel.
The sheer joy they’re having is most clear on ‘Thieves Like Us’, which sounds like a rejected take from Oliver!. Rønnenfelt is a natural fit for a raving Fagin, and you can picture him rounding up his gang and letting words tumble out of his mouth in a patter: “Thieves like us/ Postulate we must/ In echo chambers of fermented ethanol/ Listen to reason as I voice my speculations/ With the brains of a blowup doll.” The song gains steam throughout, like an unstoppable swarm of pickpockets growing in brashness at their leader’s impassioned speech, until the very end of the song features Iceage hammering on close mic’d piano strings, which explode like demented church bells, giving the song the extra little oomph – it’s a moment so heedlessly bombastic that I actually burst out laughing the first time I heard it.
In a piece of excellent sequencing, the hubris of ‘Thieves Like Us’ is shortly followed up by ‘Take It All’, the most stoic and earnest song in Iceage’s discography. It sounds like a gorgeously seasick take on The National; stately arrangements, slow building verses leading to an open-hearted and wretched chorus. Its deep-red hue and sonic breadth (more expansive than anything they've suggested before) make it truly breathtaking.
Beyondelss ends with its title track, a sea-faring shoegaze monolith, that seems to set our heroes off on another voyage, with tempestuous typhoon guitars rocking them and windy violins lashing their faces. They might be bedraggled and exhausted, but they’re still setting off for lands new; their ambition and drive is truly ‘Beyondless’, and that’s the galvanising effect and feeling you get as a listener when finishing Iceage’s latest statement album.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 7th May 2018.