Ever since their first LP, New Brigade, appeared at the beginning of this decade, the Danish quartet Iceage have been buzzed about in particular punk and indie circles. Given they were still basically kids at the time, they’ve also proven themselves to be shape-shifters over the years. From the squalls of distortion that washed over the more aggressive New Brigade and its 2013 followup, You’re Nothing, the band rewrote their own rules on 2014’s Plowing Into The Field Of Love, betraying an affinity for Nick Cave as they delved into a frayed and heavy take on Americana that was still indebted to punk but now with a cinematic scope.
Now, a lot of people loved those albums, and there was plenty to love on all of them. But their latest collection, Beyondless, finds Iceage jumping up to a completely new level. It feels like the long-awaited delivery on the promise this band has always possessed, the moment when they could rise to the next echelon of today’s indie landscape.
I can’t think of many other young artists making rock music that sounds like anything like this right now, and if they’re out there, they aren’t doing it half as well. The easiest way to sum up Beyondless is that the Nick Cave influence is still very much present: It sounds like Cave in his more feral early days attempting to make a Rolling Stones album but being unable to help himself from periodically contorting it into blackened mystic shapes or just straight-up dousing it in gasoline, dropping a match, and dancing amongst the flames. There are various points across Beyondless where Iceage sound alternately swaggering, strung out, shamanistic, drunk, and ferocious.
The guide through all of it is frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt. Possessing a brooding charisma, he’s the type of frontman “they just don’t make anymore,” furiously slurring his way through Beyondless while his hair always falls in that perfectly unkempt way that somehow either looks like it’s constantly wet or he hasn’t showered in days. The nature of his vocal approach has broadened and deepened over the years, and he often sounds like the mad prophet at the center of Beyondless — growling over the album’s more unhinged tracks, drawing his words out like a conjuring in its more ambiguous ones.
Of course, you can’t always tell exactly what the hell he’s singing about. A lot of the album’s most affecting lyrical moments are actually pretty vague notions, given weight by the band’s delivery. This is a group, after all, that has been infamously standoffish in the past, and even if they’ve mellowed out somewhat, they’re still not the most forthcoming bunch when it comes to explaining any sort of theoretical narratives in their music. The album’s very name is a cipher inviting multiple interpretations. When asked if Beyondless denoted that the band couldn’t be constrained by the boundaries of their punk roots in our recent Iceage feature, this is how Bender Rønnenfelt responded:
I mean, it could also suggest something that couldn’t go any further. It just doesn’t have a beyond. It’s a pretty rich word and an unexisting one. It comes from a Beckett novel, where he breaks apart and conjoins words in incorrect ways to make new meanings. What the word suggests is a meaning, even though it doesn’t exist in a dictionary.
This is a good way to start understanding the unique identity of Beyondless, a scorched-earth rock album that manages to spend most of its time sounding totally otherworldly. Throughout, Iceage is stitching elements together — a dash of punk fury over a classic rock boogie, emphatic horn blares backing up laconic sneers — to create their own warped interpretation of the rock canon. “A new meaning,” derived from years spent together as nascent music fans crate-digging and sharing their discoveries with each other. And like Bender Rønnenfelt asserted, it’s a meaning that’s still mostly suggestive.
“The future’s never starting/ The present never ends,” Bender Rønnenfelt sings in the chorus of “The Day The Music Dies.” That could be a philosophical aside about perception, or that could be a dose of nihilism to get you in the mood for the end-times vibe that dominates these songs. Beyondless is the kind of album that lets you inhabit its world immediately without shedding light on what exactly is going on, exactly where or when this is all supposed to take place. It sounds like aridity and apocalypse, wrapped in an enigmatic grandeur.
Even as each track does something specific, Iceage maintain this atmosphere throughout. But here’s what you really need to know about Beyondless: All of its songs are just so fucking good. From its opener “Hurrah” stampeding by as if to outrun the unbreakable cycles of humanity’s self-destruction it catalogs, to the “I Can’t Quit You Baby“-style addictive love affair of “Pain Killer,” to the fact that they had the gall to name a song “Thieves Like Us” when this bit of perfection is already out there in the universe and subsequently delivered a wiry, inebriated bit of saloon rock, every individual installment on Beyondless is evocative from the start.
That’s before you even get to all the little clever touches, like the extra propulsion the handclaps add in the final, frenzied chorus of “Hurrah.” Before you soak up the texture given by the album’s orchestration, whether the screeching horn passages hinting at free-jazz or the string accompaniments, sometimes sounding like a salve in the storm and sometimes working like a nervous breakdown. Before you listen a few times and realize that even the songs you always expect to go nowhere, to get stuck in narcotic drawl, often rupture into something exhilarating and surprising; one of the aforementioned vague-but-affecting lyrical moments comes with Bender Rønnenfelt’s bellowed refrain of “Push it up! Push it up!” in the final stretch of “Under The Sun,” a track that lurches forward as if on the verge of falling apart until it locks into one of the many cathartic incantations that populate the album.
And then there are the strange ones: “Catch It” and “Take It All” and the title track closer. These are the best songs on Beyondless, the types of compositions you can listen to dozens of times and still feel as if there are haunting mysteries lingering at their corners yet to be divined. “Catch It” is a dark ritual constantly building intensity until the band finally lets it unspool entirely. “Take It All” is likely the prettiest song this band has ever written; it sounds like a haggard-yet-surreal sunrise in a foreign land. And “Beyondless” feels all the more remarkable for how it arrives at the end of the album when you’d suspect you’ve heard all its tricks; instead, it throws you into the middle of a tornado, Bender Rønnenfelt a broken human presence amidst the swirling guitar noise and disembodied string wails around him.
Beyondless already sounds like it takes place in a different world: beleaguered and intoxicated conversations happening in smoke-filled rooms at the edge of civilization, a bleak noir for an imagined city, rendered with romanticism equal parts desperate and self-aware. But those three songs suggest something, well, beyond: That just when you think the album couldn’t venture any further, there’s this unnerving allure hinting at other places even deeper hidden. These are the songs that leave you wondering what Iceage could sound like in another three or four years. And for now, they rank as some of their most striking works, the songs that balance out the directness of the album’s rockers and lend Beyondless its elusive majesty.
This was a band that already had its devotees. A band that proved it could pull off raw and goth-y post-punk, but could also sprawl out across the desert (or the bar’s pool table) for a kind of shambling and poetic rock. But Beyondless is something different. Iceage are going places that aren’t reminiscent of anything else right now. And as a result, they’ve given us their best album yet.
Beyondless is out 5/4 on Matador.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Jon Hopkins’ latest collection of space-odyssey electronica, Singularity.
• Belly’s pristine alt-rock return DOVE, their first album in 23 years.
• Eleanor Friedberger’s glossy and synthed-up singer-songwriter opus Rebound.
• DJ Koze’s expertly-crafted, long-awaited, and impressively guest-heavy Knock Knock.
• Middle Kids’ soaring and hooky debut Lost Friends.
• Leon Bridges’ soulful, retro sophomore outing Good Thing.
• Damien Jurado’s intricate yet road-worn The Horizon Just Laughed.
• Gaz Coombes’ wizened Brit-rock LP, World’s Strongest Man.
• Brian Eno’s decades-spanning box set of ambient works, Music For Installations.
• RF Shannon’s journey deep into the hazier corners of Americana, Trickster Blues.
• Dodos member Meric Long’s solo debut as FAN, Barton’s Den.
• Cut Worms’ Beatles-tinged throwback Hollow Ground.
• Viva La Void’s self-titled debut, from Moon Duo’s Sanae Yamada.
• Daniel Blumberg’s exploratory Mute debut, Minus.
• Black Moth Super Rainbow’s washed-out Panic Blooms.