Elias Bender Rønnenfelt hasn’t taken many breaks in five years. The 24-year-old Danish musician is best known for fronting Copenhagen post-punks Iceage, who started off a chain reaction of creativity with the release of 2011’s New Brigade, which was followed in fairly quick succession by the increasingly more sophisticated post-punk of You’re Nothing and Plowing Into the Field of Love. In 2013 he released an album with his synth-pop project Vår, No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers, and then last year, delivered the first full length with his other other band, Marching Church. With each release, however, Rønnenfelt has tapped into a new creative outlet and a new aesthetic through which to explore his own artistic growth. Even Iceage, a band with a consistent lineup and general conceptual sensibility, there’s been a pretty significant degree of evolution, starting out as an aggressive, noisy punk band before eventually embracing the gothic romance of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Add other musicians into the mix, and the results offer even more variation and expansion.
With Marching Church, Rønnenfelt let off some of the more overt dissonance and angst of Iceage, leaning more on the late-night grooves and sexiness of the likes of Roxy Music and ’70s-era soul music on debut album This World Is Not Enough. And though he’s the type of singer who always feels as if he’s method acting—groaning and bellowing his way through a complex set of emotions—Marching Church felt slightly less serious, if only because it simply didn’t sound so angry. The same can be said for second album Telling It Like It Is, which finds the project solidifying more comfortably into a proper full band featuring members of Iceage and Lower, yet feels spacious and loose in a way that neither of those bands ever have. The darkness of Iceage is present on Telling It Like It Us, but unlike the group’s previous album, this set is less improvisational and more carefully considered. Put simply, it’s a much stronger batch of songs.
Rønnenfelt and his collaborators sound more focused on Telling It Like It Is, leaning less on an atmosphere of luxury and sensuality and finding greater comfort in restraint and contrast. The album’s first single, “Heart of Life,” still carries some of the lustful excess that seeped through This World‘s aesthetic, but filtered into a more direct art rock song that balances scratchy, groove-laden verses and explosive, on-the-verge-of-collapse choruses. From there, the band only gets better at the nuance game, creating a darkly sumptuous atmosphere on “Inner City Pigeon,” as elegant trickles of piano frame Rønnenfelt’s moans of “I’m never coming down.” Best of all is “Lion’s Den,” which balances a surprisingly tasteful falsetto vocal lead against a deep post-punk bassline and an eerie gauze of melodica.
Where This World felt sometimes like an overcorrection from the more explicit darkness of Iceage, Marching Church have since doubled back and find new inspiration in ominous atmosphere. Yet it’s still a playful kind of darkness, a good distance removed from outright nihilism. There’s a Nick Cave swagger to “Information,” its dark cabaret presentation balancing booming basslines and delicate trickles of piano against a lyric that seems innocuous on paper—”Information’s coming through every boy and girl“—but feels much more menacing as a result of the intense swell of sound. Upon first listen, “2016” could easily pass for recent Iceage, but once the glam-rock strut kicks in, it looks even farther back, explicitly borrowing from Iggy Pop’s “Sixteen.” Rønnenfelt’s own escalating desperation is a more sinister permutation of Pop’s sexual itch, climaxing with a cry of “I’m howwwwwwling.” And when he moans, “I’ve been up for days, been up for days, been up for days” on “Up for Days,” he could either be haunted by something horrible or just can’t stop moving. Either way you interpret it, it’s unsettling yet entirely relatable.
Telling It Like It Is comes across as a more serious album than its predecessor, but it’s not as if Marching Church have backed away from having fun in the process. In fact it’s very fun, like vintage goth, post-punk and ’70s art rock often was while harboring a penchant for sinister aesthetics. What could have easily been an indulgent one-off project has ended up as a proper band coming into its own. What Telling It Like It Is proves is Marching Church are only getting better.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.