Graded on a Curve: Iceage, You’re Nothing

Copenhagen, Denmark’s Iceage kicked up a bit of a stir back in 2011 with their first LP New Brigade. Along with their debut 4-song, 7-inch, that album offered a dozen blasts of post-punk action delivered with the sort of power normally associated with hardcore. Those efforts formed a fine opening statement, but their sophomore record You’re Nothing brings some definite changes to the table. Overall, the band’s growth somewhat lessens their effectiveness through normalization, but after time spent it’s clear that, at least for the moment anyway, Iceage remain a band to watch.

Iceage were late-teens at the time of New Brigade’s appearance. That record was drenched in an abundance of energy and a lack of self-conscious restraint that can really only come from a bunch of amped-up kids seeking a creative outlet while coping with the unavoidable pangs of growing up. And it’s not just that Iceage played loud, hard, and fast; anybody can do that. Instead, the testament to the group’s youth really shined through the lack of anxiety they displayed over their general lack of originality while also avoiding any sort of pride or even calculation in their influences.

Iceage didn’t connect like they devoted very much time to studying the records that impacted their musical direction. No, they seemed like a bunch of youngsters who took those initial doses of inspiration and then quickly came up with their own raggedy and intense thing. They also weren’t worried about distancing themselves from their sources and they also didn’t streamline what they were doing to fit into the parameters of any well-established scene.

Overall, that’s not a particularly big deal. In fact, that’s how most musicians get the ball rolling. The reason Iceage stood out relates to quality. Not to step on anyone’s feelings, but most bands featuring such a lack of life experience aren’t very good. I plain fact they’re often quite bad. This isn’t any startling revelation; ask veteran players about their early exploits and you’ll commonly get stories detailing any number of unrecorded endeavors, activities that frequently inspire ambivalence or even embarrassment on the part of the tellers.

Naturally there are exceptions. ‘60s-garage, ’77-punk (especially on the fringes), and indeed ‘80s-hardcore are genres defined to varying extents by the moxie of youth. But they’re all part of history, scenes shaped by the participants desire to escape boredom; when there Ain’t Nothin’ to Do (as the Dead Boys so sweetly put it), you gotta make your own fun.

With the explosion of cable TV, video games, feature films marketed to a younger demographic, and the vastness of the internet and the social media that accompanies it, it seems contemporary teens aren’t plagued with the nagging specter of boredom. Rather they’re immersed in an overload of options. The result is wave after wave of groups populated by twenty-somethings that offer music that’s somewhat hampered by an aura of rampant adultness and an awareness of exactly where it’s fitting in.

Some will hastily respond that young people have generally abandoned rock for genres like hip-hop and dubstep. But those forms are so media saturated that’s it’s highly difficult for them to grow in a vacuum, a huge part of why ‘60s garage and ‘80s hardcore proved so interesting. The worthy genre of hip-hop seems to be largely floundering (though no, it’s not “dead”), possibly due to media oversaturation, and dubstep has yet to really move this writer, though similar feelings over techno were defeated by such names at Autechre, Squarepusher, and Boards of Canada.

But maybe I’m just a rockist old codger clinging to an outmoded belief in the Underground, a zone that’s inhabited and made vital by the neglected. And the history of the rock underbelly was once frequented by teenagers that ended up there mainly because the adult world found little worth in what they were up to.

At any rate, I digress. The point is that Iceage’s music arrived like a bum-rush of late-adolescent intensity that was matched with an unusual level of skill and confidence and came attached with an articulated indifference toward the reactions of their non-peers. Yes, there was a storm of media attention. But in continuing to book small shows (the story goes that Iceage sometimes played on the floor of the club, not the stage, and that bumps and bruises were common) and retaining ties with What’s Your Rupture?, the little label that distributed New Brigade in the States, they really felt like a diamond in the rough.

It was sorta inevitable that some bigger company would get their hands on the outfit, and it might as well be Matador, a long-serving imprint with a solid track-record of letting musicians do their thing without meddling. The first proof that Iceage made a smart choice in stepping into the big leagues with Matador is that You’re Nothing seems designed to largely satisfy the musical needs of their immediate peer group. Those outside of it, especially folks getting their first taste of Iceage through this LP, might end up baffled to some degree.

On a purely musical level, New Brigade was an intriguing proposition. Some remarked that it was too hardcore to be post-punk and too post-punk to be hardcore. That wasn’t incorrect, but the elements of hardcore weren’t exactly formulaic. These guys just attacked their songs with an aggressive forward motion that felt like the result of copious coffee consumption. If they were in some sense hardcore, it sorta felt like an accident.

But without the furiousness, their songs would’ve been merely derivative of the post-punk side of their equation. Their very name is a pretty obvious crib from a Joy Division song after all, though New Brigade sounded more informed by the strains of certain tougher bands from the dawn of the ‘80s, Killing Joke for one example. An early goth-rock vibe also occasionally entered the fray. It surely helped matters that their debut was produced by legit Danish punk Peter Peter (as in The Pumpkin Eater. He had a wife but couldn’t keep her) Schneidermann, formerly of The Sods and Sort Sol, both top-flight Scandinavian outfits.

However, it becomes apparent rather quickly on You’re Nothing that hardcore has now entered the equation as a consciously articulated style. It was probably always there of course, but nothing on New Brigade sounded kissed by the angry (and yes, youthful) tumult that exploded from early-‘80s Orange County California like so much of the proceedings do here.

First track “Ecstasy” opens as a decidedly post-punk state of affairs, the vocals of Johan Suurballe Wieth falling into half-spoken/half-sung territory, but in under a minute comes a shift in tempo that would trigger some serious mosh-pit frenzy. It’s followed by a huge throb from bassist Jakob Tvilling Pless that’s got that post-punk doom-thang down pat, but then back comes Wieth ranting like one of the thousand spiritual sons of Darby. Repeat the cycle once and the song is over in two and a half minutes.

“Ecstasy” is still quite Euro sounding, but the next cut “Coalition” establishes a tempo that could make the approximate geography of Iceage’s origins far less clear to a newcomer. Yes, Wieth’s accent is still detectable, but to be frank a whole lot of US-born punk screamers tried sounding like they were from the other side of the pond. And Wieth’s raw-throated approach across You’re Nothing is more than a bit remindful of the brazen yawp conjured by the first couple waves of emo-core vocalists, a similarity that’s only enhanced due to the vocals being higher in the mix than before.

If the self-explanatory “Interlude” ends up sounding like an excerpt from a score to a low-budget Reagan-era action flick where some no-good renegade Commies try to steal an atomic weapon for the purposes of speeding up Armageddon, “Burning Hand” lands squarely in the middle of the same Cold War decade, falling in line with the attempts of the period’s punkers to avoid generics through the display of a slightly wider musical palate.

Back then those measures did help to considerably diversify things, but Iceage’s stabs at integrating a more pronounced hardcore execution into their earlier sound mainly leads them far closer to an air of normalcy, though thankfully they do manage to avoid the generic. Perhaps they are just listening to more records, but the brittle yet stinging atmosphere of New Brigade (a very hardcore sounding title, I agree), is on You’re Nothing (an even more HC album name, don’tcha think?) far more conventionally heavy and representative of the post-punk-meets-HC tag they were initially saddled with.

The opening moments of “In Haze” flirt with mere melodic speed-punk, but it quickly diverts into some needed angularity. Plus Wieth sings like his nostrils are impacted with cement. On the other hand, “Morals” sounds like an early-‘80s post-punk dirge produced by Phil Spector (it’s even got a piano), but it also can’t resist revving up the tempo, and it ends with drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen rehearsing for a military funeral.

Things largely continue in this vein; Wieth wildly emotes, guitarist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt rips it up while also flashing a heightened proficiency, and the rhythm team thunders while being spry enough to handle the music’s changes in direction. But where the band once felt like they were close to falling apart (not through sloppiness but by tenacious overreach), they now possess a well-practiced precision.

And yet it’s all delivered so relentlessly and with a seeming disdain for any broad crossover appeal (in the land of neo post-punk, these guys are on the opposite end of the spectrum from label-mates Interpol) that many observers outside of their current and future fan base will likely wonder over the point of it all.

That’s the one thing about Iceage that’s remained very much the same. If unhidden in the wide-open spotlight, they still seem disinterested in softening their music for a wider, more mature audience. This continues to be greasy kid stuff. I like that. And if a mild disappointment, I also like You’re Nothing. And I really like that “Rodfæstet” is sung in their native language. Personally, I’d be gassed if Wieth ditched English entirely on their next LP.

Bands in this style aren’t known for their longevity. If the overall appeal has somewhat lessened with this record, the songwriting is improving, giving hope that Iceage just might stick around for a bit.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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