The sight of Elias Bender Rønnenfelt in “The Lord’s Favorite” video—smoking a cigarette, drinking a martini garnished with dice, long locks of hair in his lipstick-smeared face—felt like a turning point for Iceage. Where they had just a few years earlier introduced themselves as dead-eyed teenage nihilists, cannonballing their way through the two-minute hardcore shrieks on debut album New Brigade, the Danish band had grown into something far less severe. They could slow down, even get comfortable remaining in one place for longer than 30 seconds at a time. Iceage could laugh at themselves, even. None of which meant 2014’s Plowing Into the Field of Love was any less mired in darkness or intensity than their previous releases, just that these ideas could be explored in more nuanced ways—more Nick Cave, less Negative Approach.
After four years and two full-lengths from Rønnenfelt’s more lascivious, late-night noir outfit Marching Church, Iceage have returned even farther down this path of darkly sophisticated songwriting with their best album to date, Beyondless. At no point does the band ever sound quite so loose or drunkenly playful as they did on “The Lord’s Favorite,” save for the sole country track “Thieves Like Us,” yet there’s a greater feeling of comfort and ease within these more elaborately orchestrated art-punk pieces. Iceage’s appeal once existed within their restlessness, always ripping through songs as if the floor was crumbling beneath them. To pore over Rønnenfelt’s lyric sheet, one doesn’t get the sense that they’ve necessarily left any of their angst or anxiety behind them, but their outlet is less incendiary and hostile. Iceage sound quite at home in this more sensuously indulgent darkness.
It is, indeed, indulgent; the first sound on the record is a slow saxophone riff breaking through soft-focus ambience. You can practically picture velvet curtains rippling in the background. When the opening rhythm of “Hurrah” breaks through, however, it tears those curtains down with a blazing, tambourine-shaking post-punk number that gets the momentum going with a thrilling expediency. It’s as fun and direct as Iceage gets, though there’s an ominous tone underlying the hedonistic sounds. Rønnenfelt returns several times to the refrain, “We can’t stop killing and we never stop killing,” reflecting a sense of chaos in the outside world that doesn’t often permeate Iceage’s intense, interior realm. Rønnenfelt is often more likely to speak to something more primal and sexual, as he does on the Bad Seeds-like punk-blues dirge “Catch It”: “You need it, you need it, you need it again/ Trust me, these arbitrary thrills will never fail to transcend.” Sex is both addiction and savior, a theme already explored in endless Depeche Mode songs, but one that still rings true all the same.
Expert as Iceage are at manipulating gloom into stunning shapes, they’ve delivered some unexpectedly bright sounds on Beyondless‘ most exhilarating moments. “Pain Killer,” featuring guest vocals by Sky Ferreira, is one such moment, a big, roaring rock ‘n’ roll song driven by a bold blast of horns. There’s a similar level of brassy swagger on “The Day The Music Dies,” perhaps the most explicitly glam-rock-inspired track in their catalog. Where many of the other songs here directly address sex, “The Day The Music Dies” captures a more stereotypically sexy sound, with raw, rock ‘n’ roll guitar licks. Yet Rønnenfelt turns his focus, instead, to an introspective, unscratchable itch: “Performed an exorcism on myself, cited prayers and rites of deliverance/Yet here I am, somehow still possessed.”
When detached from its carnal instincts, political angst or internal torment, Beyondless still comes across as the best sounding album in Iceage’s catalog. They’ve never sounded this focused or dialed-in, nor as comfortable draping their punk-blues scratch in so many luxurious layers. Which doesn’t mean they’ve escaped any of the restlessness of their previous albums. They’re simply no longer trying to outrun it, content instead to find catharsis in less destructive means. It’s perhaps what should be expected of a group of men graduating to new levels of adulthood (drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen, for instance, is now a father). Beyondless has a lot going for it, but the most satisfying thing about the album is how much fun it sounds like Iceage is having.
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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.