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The Passion of Iceage

. 7 min read
The Passion of Iceage

by Andrew Burton

Iceage appeared destined for greatness from the beginning. Ten years ago, The New York Times and The New Yorker wrote about the band after the release of its debut record, New Brigade, out before anyone in the group had turned 20. The music literati gossiped that these four Danish teens were the “saviors of punk”: hardcore enough for purists, fashionable enough for bohemians, and sensible enough to become critics’ favorites. Most impressively, they pulled this off without sounding like they were imitating past greats.

From the start, the band developed—and subsequently nurtured—a captivating personality. They are disorderly chic and awkwardly sexy, intimidating but not unapproachable. Their Teutonic otherness is austere and exotic, though not so alien as to defy comprehension. Their songs could be made by you—a cooler you.

With the May release of Seek Shelter, their fifth studio album, Iceage has cemented their status as a great band—just not on the terms the world expected. Over the course of the band’s first decade, its music has changed… a lot. Every passing record has built on the clangy post-punk found on New Brigade, incorporating new sonic elements without abandoning the group’s élan. As far back as 2014, Plowing Into the Field of Love’s bluesy detours and auxiliary instrumentation made it clear Iceage would never confine itself to punk’s rigid format. But even before this became obvious, signals lurked below the surface. The band has always been too smart, too restless, and too ambitious to be complacent. (They have constantly sought inspiration from sources outside of music. As Jenn Pelly noted in her review of 2018’s Beyondless, some of their closest artistic connections are with non-musicians like the visual artists Elizabeth Peyton and Makoto Azuma.) Their defiant attitude reeks of confidence—ask Iggy Pop. It’s what made them heirs to punk’s throne as teenagers, and when they turned it down, it’s what has entrenched them as darlings of the indie rock world and given them respectability in the art world.

Although Iceage albums vary stylistically, they are all connected by an unmistakable, commanding presence. You’re Nothing, the band’s sophomore LP, retained the crash-and-bang velocity of its predecessor but placed this energy in a more frightening atmosphere. When frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt screams “Pressure, pressure / Oh god no” on album opener “Ecstasy,” he begs to leave the world behind. Plowing subsequently balanced You’re Nothing’s agony with cowboy-like exuberance. Its gothic mysterioso lures listeners into a universe that delicately balances charm and enigma.

2018’s Beyondless was less frenzied and more hook-oriented than their past work, marking the start of a transition toward their current sound. Grown-up and sporting a dashing bravado on Seek Shelter, the band has taken their swagger out of cramped indie venues and expanded it for music festival main stages. During the chorus of “High & Hurt,” Rønnenfelt’s double-tracked vocals call to mind a rock n’ roll prophet issuing a proclamation from a hilltop. Most groups would come off corny if they tried this, but Iceage’s savoir faire gives it room to be ridiculous. For the first time, they sound like elder statesmen. The experience they’ve gained from spending years in punk’s trenches and stacks of Bataille books lies in Seek Shelter’s backdrop, preventing the songs from slipping into bland arena rock territory.

“Part of me wants to be a pop star,” Rønnenfelt told Pitchfork in 2014. The admission was hardly surprising: On nearly every Iceage song, all eyes and ears lead back to him. Seek Shelter is the closest he's gotten to his wish. It’s a rock album, but it’s got enough anthemic grandeur to fulfill his craving to be Madonna for a day. “Shelter Song,” the album’s opener, features backing vocals from the Lisboa Gospel Collective. In the band’s early days, this collaboration would never have happened, and while there were extravagant passages on Plowing and Beyondless, those moments did not define either record. With Seek Shelter, Iceage has decided it’s time to act on their most lavish impulses.

Excluding “Drink Rain”—a whimsical oddity that sounds like it was written for a vaudeville show—each track on Seek Shelter feels tailored to a sold-out stadium tour. It’s easy to envision these songs being performed under flashing lights in front of stacks of Marshall amplifiers. Iceage’s older music used to sprint with disgust; its latest recordings slither playfully. Drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen starts “Vendetta” off with a groovy, mid-tempo shuffle, allowing the guitars to interweave in a way that evokes slimy ‘90s grunge. As they have matured, the band has found a way to look at the world they used to see so dimly and have fun with it. They’ve also become more vulnerable: The introspective “Gold City” borrows from Americana and verges on power-ballad territory. One pictures a crowd swaying to it with their lighters lit, a scene far removed from mosh pits of yore.

A four-piece until recently, Iceage added second guitarist Caspar Morilla Fernandez to their lineup for Seek Shelter. It is also their first with production from Sonic Boom (a.k.a. Peter Kember of Spacemen 3). The band’s expanded membership facilitates the new record’s expansive sound.

Since as far back as “Morals”—a minor-key death slog from You’re Nothing with subtle piano chords in the background—Iceage has looked beyond its punk roots to create atmosphere, but never as it has on Seek Shelter. Violin, piano, saxophone, trumpet, and trombone make appearances throughout the record. Many of these instruments showed up on Beyondless, too, but they were used mainly as accents. Here, they often steer the arrangements. Horns turn “Dear Saint Cecilia” from a standard bar rock number into a larger-than-life celebration. And on “The Holding Hand”—the album’s grand finale—the violin plays the most prominent role, leading the other instruments (voice included) in unison before ripping frantic solo breaks with only drums underneath.

Rønnenfelt’s lyrics remain opaque and his vocals are still a little slurred, but Seek Shelter demonstrates how much he’s grown as a frontman and wordsmith. Earlier releases placed his voice on par in the mix with the guitar, bass, and drums. Now, it is first among an expanded cast of equals. With the exception of “The Holding Hand,” whose parts mirror each other's rhythmic patterns, his singing stands at the forefront of each track on the album. This holds true even when the guitar riffs are prominent on songs like “Dear Saint Cecilia” and “The Wider Powder Blue”—Rønnenfelt’s singing punctures through the rest of the ensemble to catch your attention.

Iceage lyrics used to be largely unintelligible, and even when you could figure out what Rønnenfelt was saying, his simple sketches generally relied on the sharp-throated emotion in his voice to convey feeling. On Seek Shelter, he still sings with emotion, but he's more refined. You can actually make out his words now, too. This is a welcome change, as he has turned into a fine rock poet who can create rich images with ease. There is God (“Limp wristed God / Don't you know I'm not at a fault in your weakened arms”), love (“We become each other’s sedatives”), trepidation (“Although it seems so very hard to break with, we've broken it”), and best of all, detailed yet indeterminate images that push you to the floor where you can better bask in their glory (“Dizzy headed banshee of a phosphene capacity”).

From afar, Iceage’s discography appears to have been made by two different groups: their early material by pale, disturbed teenagers who listen to no wave but have too much piss and vinegar for abstract noodling, and their more recent output by Dog Man Star-era Suede. Upon close inspection, though, continuities abound. It’s not too surprising that the band that put out New Brigade later made Seek Shelter.

While more digestible than Iceage’s early work, Seek Shelter is not a sellout move. It reflects an honest impulse that has always been integral to Iceage’s M.O: to ooze with unpredictable flair. If they decided to play it safe and become a standard-bearer punk band, the persona they’ve cultivated would vanish. What made the members of Iceage sound mature beyond their years from the get-go was that even when they were on the edge of chaos, they were in total control. Now, they have aged gracefully and are less angry. Their progression away from austerity is more natural than trying to imitate the punk authenticity they had when they were young.

While this change in approach has opened up new possibilities for the band, it’s also bittersweet. Iceage made its name as a band that was raucous and unsafe, one that moved its audience by shaking them rather than getting them to dance. Seek Shelter trades this primal edge for introspection and experimentation. It’s a contradictory collection of songs; it has pushed the group furthest outside its original boundaries, but it’s also the most palatable record they’ve made to date. Regrettably, Rønnenfelt and Co. have lost a bit of vigor in the shuffle. Beyondless, at least, has “Catch It”—a dark, aggressive song that breaks up a stream of lighter tracks; there are no such moments on Seek Shelter until its final track.

Five albums in, Iceage doesn’t seem destined to settle into any mold. Seek Shelter is a worthy addition to a discography that continues to expand. It may be easier on the ears than their past projects, but it is by no means a soundtrack for reclining into soft rock beach chairs. Genre hopping is a risky endeavor for a group that began life playing hardcore, but Iceage has made it work. The group’s songwriting eschews gimmicks, their artistry is propelled by their persona. Traces of their old selves still linger, if more in attitude than in sound.

Whatever world it’s in, Iceage exudes mastery. With Seek Shelter, the band has traded anxiety and compression for confidence and expansiveness. They are not the kings of punk that music journalists once believed they’d be, but a decade after their debut LP, they’ve achieved greatness by translating their early discontent into splendor.

Andrew Burton is a freelance writer from Toronto, currently based in Lower Manhattan. Get to know him better: @fixin2die