By Zachary Sniderman; photo by Kristian Emdal on March 25, 2013
At first there’s the beat, a militaristic snare and a sole dark figure standing alone on the stage. Mina, a pop singer from the ’60s, sings “L’ultima occasione” live on Italian television, dressed all in black and looking very moony. The stage is bare except for her. She looks down at clasped hands with large, heavy-lidded eyes. She casts powerful glances toward the camera, singing of loss and last chances. There is control and sadness, and a sense of defiance. A full orchestra traces Mina’s voice, but they seem distant and far off, miles away from her emotion.
On the other side of time and genre, the drummer of Danish punk band Iceage taps out the same opening rhythm inside a Copenhagen club called Mayhem. The lead singer stares down the audience. He stumbles around looking both lost and brittle. Beer bottles fly at the camera, punches are thrown. “These arms, they never reach far enough/These shoulders never strike wide enough.” There is no control; there is defiance. In Iceage’s hands, Mina’s “Last Time” becomes militaristic, fatalistic; they shredded it apart until it became “Morals,” a highlight of their new and challenging album You’re Nothing.
Iceage have bottled a wellspring of frustration—at boys, at girls, at the economy, at electropop, at growing up, at getting old—and found a real (and sometimes violent) way of expressing it. Their songs are almost all sub-three-minute attacks of eloquent, beautiful lyrics on inadequacy, anarchy and a certain sadness—though god bless you if you can make any of that out.
Guitarist and vocalist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, at just 20 years old, has one of the most charismatic and captivating voices in music at the moment. Continually pushed to extremes, he’s almost mercurially off-key on every song, as if his throat could only produce the shadows and shades of words. That hasn’t stopped the band’s songs (sung almost entirely in English) from hitting a nerve with audiences both at home in Denmark and abroad. To some, that volatile energy has helped Iceage become more than just a punk band or a hardcore band, but saviors of a sort, even if the band won’t admit it.
“I don’t know if we saved anything, especially with the new album, which isn’t that much of a punk album,” says drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen. “I don’t know if anything needs saving, or how we would do it.”
If Iceage don’t care about saving the world, they do care about playing a solid set even in the midst of chaos. “It’s really important that we play everything right, but not every single note matters that much,” Nielsen explains. “If we weren’t trying to play as good as we could, it would make no sense. It doesn’t make any sense to spend this much time and energy to do something that you don’t take seriously.”
Formed a couple years ago when all four members were in high school in Copenhagen, Iceage recorded their debut album New Brigade and released it in Denmark to modest fanfare in 2011. A second release via What’s Your Rupture? later that year unleashed them to a wider audience. Noisy and spirited, New Brigade became a critical hit and new converts flocked to their shows.
But what to do with that kind of quick success? Play even harder. And start selling some messed-up merch.
“We were just thinking about doing something else besides T-shirts and, I don’t know, we thought it’d be cool to have knives with our logo on it,” Nielsen says, before pausing, adding, “It’s not a chance you get very often.” Selling knives at a moshpit might sound like a bad idea, but the band was more worried about their other enterprise: selling locks of their own hair. “Maybe it was a bad idea because people could use it for DNA and place it at crime scenes,” Nielsen admits. “Or use it for magic, or whatever.”
Despite the sophomoric merch table, Iceage are growing up a little. After a violent tour of booze and self-inked tattoos, the band returned home to recuperate and record. The result is an album with songs that come out fast and hard, but more adventurous with more complex progressions, deeper (audible) lyrics and new sounds. “I think this time we did it differently,” Nielsen says. “We probably experimented some more, making different kinds of sounds. There’s a song with a piano and a 12-string guitar, and stuff.”
For You’re Nothing, Iceage signed to Matador, which has brought them more reach but (as the home to Ceremony and Fucked Up) certainly hasn’t blunted their edges. You’ll still get your ass kicked at an Iceage show, but even their live performances have become more avant-garde. (A recent date in New York featured an art installation with works by Rønnenfelt.)
There’s a certain impulse to paint Iceage as noble savages: the kind of musicians who lead thrashing audiences and bleed on their instruments, but feel comfortable sampling ’60s Italian pop, talking about Georges Bataille and singing about “withered trauma.” It’s a mistake to think that the aggression of Iceage’s music can’t naturally pair with intelligence, even if it’s distorted. Iceage are getting better, but they are devoted to the music above all else and that’s what they’re built to do, and that’s what they’re going to do until people stop showing up.
The kids are all right, and they’re coming for you. F
3 ALBUMS THAT INSPIRED ICEAGE'S DAN KJÆR NIELSEN TO MAKE MUSIC
Dressed to Kill
I got this from my dad. He’s shown me since I was very small how cool KISS are and I very much agree.
Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water
I very rarely listen to this anymore, and when I do it can be hard to take it seriously, but it taught me about how violent and scary rock music can be.
This was the first David Bowie record I heard, and then I heard all the rest. There’s not much to say, but I never get tired of him.
This article is from FILTER Issue 51