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Iceage - Beyondless Music Album Reviews

Iceage - Beyondless Music Album Reviews

The fourth album from the Danish punk band is an astonishing odyssey, reaching for pop-gothic grandeur with more tenacity and abandon than ever.

Aren’t punks supposed to look at flowers and hate them? Not Iceage, it seems, who performed recently in Tokyo subsumed by flowers of every hue. Electric blue, royal red, magenta, periwinkle. Observing the Danish rock band in this breathtaking setting on Instagram, I imagined a funeral. The botanical barrage was, it turned out, an installation by the artist Makoto Azuma, famous for sending a bonsai into space. Maybe it was just supposed to look pretty. If so, this striking picture compounded beauty, softness, violence, ecstasy—not unlike Iceage’s new music. It felt like a commitment to the idea that we are not what you expect, of performed vulnerability, of embodying a question mark.

Iceage have spent a decade inching towards a twisted glamor: a sullen band fronted by a Draculian poet, constantly experimenting, carrying forth the clangoring drama of post-punk innovators such as Rowland S. Howard in The Birthday Party and These Immortal Souls. Their guiding principles play out in their best songs: With “Ecstasy,” their expressiveness; with “The Lord’s Favorite,” unblinking humor; with “How Many,” romanticism. And even as their strengths converge upon this astonishing odyssey of a fourth album, Iceage remain a moving target still.

On Beyondless, Iceage reach for grandeur with more tenacity and suspending energy than ever. On the opener, “Hurrah,” Elias Rønnenfelt sings of “roaring free-jazz fireworks” as if to introduce the band’s lushest yet palette of sax, trombone, trumpet, piano, and violin, which they play with the pummeling dynamism of contemporary Swans. Beyondless sparkles like a champagne bottle smashed in slow motion. Rønnenfelt’s lyrics—which he says wrote while hidden away, late at night, in a tower—can be Biblical or Shakespearean or they can just coldly stare you in the eye. To think of this heightened style alongside the crude, vicious hardcore of their 2011 debut is inspiring. The whole sound of Beyondless, from pop hooks to hints of cabaret jazz, seems to be fantastically coated with cheap gold paint.

Rønnenfelt, now 26, has always been an actorly frontman—his voice can sound demonic, detached, drunk, sometimes all at once—but now with a more concrete grip on English, he’s fully in character, like Rimbaud born into the Addams family. He compares himself to a rat and talks to God. He sings ridiculous lines about the end of the world and STDs in his mouth. He longs for “arbitrary thrills” on the LP’s druggish “Catch It,” and on the oceanic title track, he is “perfectly lost at sea internally.” Seedy desperation is a recurring theme. Rønnenfelt wields his pen with a new level of rigor and conviction, and he makes phrases like “anesthetic laison” and “derisions of the flesh” and “wretched pantomime” roll off the tongue. When he wallows through a couplet like “As above, so below/These transgressions take me higher,” he narrates his debasement with such command that it clears the air, and charges every crevice of the song, like opera.

But he also knows when to reel it in. Beyondless is Iceage’s poppiest music by some margin, and Rønnenfelt sometimes employs extreme repetition in his songwriting, like a vintage jukebox breaking down. “Part of me wants to be a pop star,” he said in 2014, and he lives out that fantasy on “Pain Killer,” a raw glitter-bomb of a duet with Sky Ferreira. Rønnenfelt sings a whole host of desirous metaphors about spider webs and death and “the altar of your legs and feet” with great stealth. When the pair ring out the instantly classic hook “I rue the day you became my pain killer,” it sounds like they’re pushing the sky, delightfully tormented together. It’s the sound of destiny; they’re perfect foils. You can practically see the words crawling on a crackling karaoke screen.

Rønnenfelt is an avid reader of fiction and he makes Beyondless brim with novelistic detail. The title comes from the absurdist author Samuel Beckett’s void-like 1983 novella Worstward Ho, which has no plot as such. (Beckett tried to use a bare minimum of language: “No. No place but the one. None but the one where none. Whence never once in. Somehow in. Beyondless.”) But the tales of Beyondless seem to reflect themes of discomfiting modern life. Rønnenfelt sings of Pre-Raphaelite architecture and dead butterflies on “Thieves Like Us” while describing a disturbing hostage situation, in which he wants to “file a restraining order on humanity or myself.” On “Hurrah,” he seems to embody a warmongering soldier who grotesquely can’t, shouldn’t, and never will stop killing—persistently chanting the line like a person who has been conditioned to murder. Iceage is not a band I really want to hear attempt protest songs, but in place of that, this subtle topical grist adds another layer of purpose.

“Showtime,” meanwhile, is pure vaudevillian madness. For one unlikely track, these ex-hardcore kids take their Bowie-ist logic of incessant change to an unimaginable extreme, pulling off the sound of a New Orleans brass band stuffed into a smoky lounge. Rønnenfelt innocently describes a theater scene: tickets purchased, small talk, a crowd of “upper crust and working folks, blockbusters, dishwashers, lady killers and floor-moppers.” The dizzying specificity throws “Showtime” into giddy comic relief—but then Iceage terrorize it. When the star of the show pulls a gun and “blows his brains all over the stage,” the derisive crowd want their money back. It feels like a comment on spectacle, capitalism, apathy, and the bleak realities of the performing arts, and it is the most shocking thing Iceage have done.

For the promotion of Beyondless, punk icon Richard Hell wrote a fawning essay about Iceage. He talks about their intelligence and anarchy and even compares the singer to their shared spiritual predecessor, Charles Baudelaire. This kind of validation feels rare for a band of Iceage’s ilk, and it could only come from a punk-literary elder today. In 2018, Iceage are still extreme outsiders—too cloistered-off for mainstream indie, not DIY enough for punk. It’s fitting that they’ve instead forged connections with artists like Ferreira, the painter Elizabeth Peyton, the opera singer M Lamar, or the flower visionary Makoto Azuma.

Iggy Pop also once called Iceage the only current punk band “that sounds really dangerous.” But where danger is concerned, Iceage’s earlier iteration pales in comparison to the daring of Beyondless. What is truly dangerous is to put your work on the line and take legitimate, consequential risks—which become an invitation to risk, and to possibility, and aliveness, for anyone who cares to listen.

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