In punk rock, it’s fairly easy to get by on speed and intensity alone. That’s always sort of been the point all along, anyway — punk rock basically is speed and intensity. But it’s never been enough to truly stand out among thousands of other bands who essentially rely on a similar ratio of aggression to velocity. For Denmark’s Iceage, standing out has never really been an issue. On the band’s debut album New Brigade, the group’s darkly nihilistic post-punk songwriting set them inside a unique niche of their own, which they carved even deeper via almost terrifyingly intense live shows. Singer Elias Rønnenfelt, despite his boyish looks, has a steely gaze that can be downright intimidating, and the band’s shows have often ended with more than a few scrapes and bruises. In 2011 the group managed to turn a 30-minute set at San Diego’s typically chill Casbah into a violent orgy of bodies slamming into each other. That kind of incendiary presence can’t be taught, only instinctively tapped.
In less than two years since the release of New Brigade, Iceage’s members have circled the globe a few times, started a side project or two (see: VÅR) and signed with Matador, a label that, in spite of its indie rock pedigree, is quickly becoming a go-to destination for progressive punk acts (see: Ceremony, Fucked Up). The band’s first album for Matador, You’re Nothing, is a pretty remarkable document of how much growth Iceage has undergone in that relatively short amount of time. As strong a debut as New Brigade was, You’re Nothing expands significantly upon the template they set out two years ago, and still manages to cram 12 jaw dropping art punk tunes into a slim 28 minutes.
Where New Brigade presented a punchy cacophony of dissonant punk roar, You’re Nothing finds the band working with more precision, honing their riffs and melodies into even more strong individual parts. A ferocious hardcore assault still erupts in moments like the vicious “It Might Cut First” or the Danish-sung “Rodfæstet.” Yet the most rewarding tracks are those in which the group more explicitly explores melody. “Coalition” still sears, but does so with a lot more colors in its palette, its tremolo guitar effects creating a serendipitous fusion of hardcore and My Bloody Valentine. “Burning Hand” is similarly laced with shoegaze density, but aims for an even more soaring chorus. And the entirety of “Wounded Hearts” is stacked with standout moments, from its infectious riff to Rønnenfelt’s increasingly unhinged performance, which goes from mimicking the guitar to unleashing an impassioned snarl.
Rønnenfelt, for his part, has largely moved away from imagery of broken bones and dark abstraction in favor of more interpersonal interactions between human beings caught in the throes of either romantic congress or suffering the roadblocks of attempting to connect and failing to do so. “Coalition” manages to balance both, Rønnenfelt lamenting, “Something denies coalition with you,” before rising to a climactic screech of “Excess!” “Morals,” the first instance of what could be called an Iceage ballad, returns to a chorus of “Broken promise/ Where’s your morals.” But it’s the leadoff track, “Ecstasy,” that manages to best combine the nihilism of punk rock with the inescapable human need for contact: “Bliss is momentary anyhow/ But worth living for, take me now.”
The most telling lyric comes amid the Wipers-style jangle of “In Haze,” in which Rønnenfelt sings, “All the leaves are brown/ and the sky is gray.” As much as it might reflect the darkness that emanates from the band’s sometimes ominous sound-world, it’s also the first line of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.” A cheeky wink at the band’s nigh-goth reputation, or just another sign that the band is keeping less space between itself and pop music? We’ll say both — nobody is going to mistake You’re Nothing for pop-punk, but there’s a sense of fun and liberation to the album that makes its triumphs stand that much taller. The speed and intensity remain; it’s what the band adds to it that makes You’re Nothing something special.