Maturity sounds a lot like your heroes
In the world of punk, ambition counts. In fact, the genre is notorious for being risk-adverse; channeling raw energy, confrontational attitude, and youthful dissatisfaction as a means to an end. This may sound like a reductive argument since there are always exceptions, but a band like Iceage have built their brand upon unleashing grueling punk/goth rock that never pretended to be anything but a sonic onslaught. The Danish outfit's searing debut, 2011's New Brigade, still remains a quintessential post-punk/hardcore statement made by four friends under the age of 21. Not even being to legally buy a beer at the local pub is an essential aspect of what drove Iceage's methodology; that reckless rage, the flailing attempts at finding one's identity, the snot-nosed fuck you to adult responsibility. New Brigade encapsulated all of that, with singer Elias Rønnenfelt's nearly unintelligible, abrasive rants leading the charge.
But, of course, people grow up. They learn. They adapt. Iceage's last album, 2014's Plowing Into the Field of Love, felt like awkward baby steps toward the idea of maturity rather than an actualization of it; adding layers of baroque rock, alt-country, and piano balladry to the mix. The results were uneven; like a group of sweaty punk kids climbing out of the basement and onto an anthem-sized stage in hopes of courting a larger audience. This all leads to their latest record, Beyondless, in which Rønnenfelt and company do their best The Birthday Party era Nick Cave impression, with decidedly mixed results.
It's not as if the intent isn't noble, and again, ambition counts for a lot, but Beyondless often comes off like young men equating dour self-seriousness with artistic growth. Iceage have always been an angry band, but by slowing things down and issuing social commentaries (complete with strings, horns, and stuttering piano) something gets lost in translation. There's the melodic opener "Hurrah", in which Rønnenfelt spits out police state proclamations like No, we can’t stop killing / And we’ll never stop killing over a driving rhythm section and soulful guitar work. Meanwhile, the Sky Ferrreira collaboration "Pain Killer" goes full orchestral pomp; with blaring horns and a repetitive chorus giving off a decidedly Foxygen vibe, except without the winking humor. The grimness continues with country-ish dirge "Under the Sun" and the sludgy, Iggy and the Stooges-inflected "The Day the Music Dies", wherein Rønnenfelt slurs his way through over-produced bombast. The angst here sounds earnest enough, but the band mostly fail at channeling this inner turmoil into a rallying cry. If anything, most of the music feels like confessional diary entries scribbled out during drunken jam sessions. Moody ramblings work wonders for Cave, and The Rolling Stones made a living out of contorting sensual debauchery into primal rock n'roll, but Iceage are often playing against their strengths here.
This doesn't mean there isn't an appealing nihilism to Beyondless. In the span of 40 minutes, the band manage to take the lyrical mantra The future’s never starting/ The present never ends from the chorus of “The Day The Music Dies" and apply it writ large. This is an apocalyptic record; part classic rock throwback, part horn-fueled beat poetry, part sonic noir about the end of all things. The album's standout track, "Catch It" exemplifies this by luring the listener into it's twisted web. Building slowly like a marching rite of passage with Rønnenfelt repeating phrases, the song morphs-- drums ascending, strings breaking, middle eastern chimes humming--before everything erupts into a psychedelic frenzy of distorted chords and atonal horns.
With this song alone, Iceage prove they could be capable of moving into The Velvet Underground territory; using the Lou Reed mode of sing-speak narratives and rock experimentalism to challenge genre altogether. However, some of the band's other attempts at homage; like the sloppy saloon rock of "Showtime" and the neo-folk ditty "Thieves Like Us" feel like young men playing a round of middle-age pastiche karaoke. There's a long history of young rock band's trying to outrun the shadow of their heroes, and Iceage are on the right track; but only time will tell if they can carve out their own version of gothic punk Americana and maybe, just maybe, crack a smile or two.