Copenhgan’s Iceage are one of the last great rock bands
Iceage emerged in the final years of the ’00s, a bunch of noisy teenage punks intent on leaving their mark on contemporary rock music. After two albums of dark, break-neck post-punk – which Iggy Pop memorably praised as sounding truly “dangerous” – 2014’s Plowing Into The Field Of Love nullified any questions about whether the Danish band was all style and no substance.
The album was hailed as a major step forward for Iceage thanks to its more accessible sound and the inclusion of increased melodicism, acoustic guitars, horn flourishes – and even the odd country twang.
Now, three and a half years later, Iceage returns with Beyondless. The band’s four members are still in their mid-to-late 20s: these are significant years for the expansion of one’s worldview, and a time to navigating some rather unfamiliar personal challenges. But frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt is ambivalent about whether Beyondless represents a more evolved perspective.
“I usually hate the way that people talk about music as maturing or growing up. I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that,” he says. “It’s more just that you go through life and different sorts of expressions go with different periods. Of course you build on what you made before and you develop. But I don’t know about growing up.”
Beyondless continues the stylistic exploration initiated on Plowing, showcasing an enriched sense of songcraft and a band emboldened by the success of that previous release. Along with nods to glam rock and ’60s avantgarde, not to mention Rønnenfelt’s typically erudite lyricism, there a couple of songs that recall the austere ferocity of the band’s earliest work.
“The core of it is the same need that has fuelled us always,” Rønnenfelt says. “But we always try and push our output into some sort of new ground. We’re not that interested in relentlessly repeating ourselves. The sort of need for creation is the same, but we can’t do it the same way twice.”
In contrast to the swirling chaos of 2011’s New Brigade and 2013’s You’re Nothing is the rigorous attention given to the constituent parts of each track on Beyondless – from the instrumentation and lyrics to the structure, performance and production quality.
“Sometimes you do, depending on the song you’re writing, have to face an uncomfortable part of yourself, or dwell in an emotion that is not necessarily easy to confront,” Rønnenfelt says. “There’s an element of that, but if there’s pain to confront it’s usually a gratifying thing to face.”
Indeed, while there’s an emotional intensity to the creative process, writing isn’t always such a hifalutin exercise. “It’s always been a quite nuanced emotional palette we have presented,” Rønnenfelt says. “So some of it has been painful to write through; some of it I’ve written with a dumb smirk on my face. It’s a process that can hold a lot of different things – and more than anything it’s a process that I enjoy.”
Since the beginning, Rønnenfelt has sought to give his lyrics a literary edge, which is again the case on Beyondless. In past interviews, members of Iceage have name-checked a range of literary favourites including American authors Carson McCullers, James Agee and Henry Miller, French writers Georges Bataille and Jean Genet, and Japanese writer and militant nationalist Yukio Mishima.
Accordingly, Rønnenfelt takes a disciplined approach to his lyric writing, reflected in lines such as these from album-opener ‘Hurrah’: “An abstract notion / That I’m flagless at last / I’m not fighting for a country / I’m fighting to outlast”.
“There are certain people who open up your idea of what language can be and what language can do,” he says. “I have a hard time picking up my influences or determining who’s influenced me and who hasn’t. But there’s people, both lyricists and writers, that have expanded my view of language and what it does.”
Some of his favourite rock lyricists include Leonard Cohen and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker. Both writers are notable for their ability to find romance in banality and for being at once humorous and melancholic. This latter characteristic is of great interest to Rønnenfelt. “Not a lot of people pick up on the humour in my writing, I think, because it’s subtle. But it’s there.”
In tune with the tonal breadth of the album, the Beyondless cover features a highly evocative artwork. Dominated by a mixture of nebulous, cellular shapes that are suggestive of existential fluidity, and presented in vivid reds and pinks signifying rage, anger and lust, it’s a wonderfully compelling but somewhat disquieting image.
“[Choosing the artwork] was a pretty painful process. I think we’ve never had a bigger argument in this band than picking the artwork for this record. In hindsight all the other suggestions for album covers were pretty shit, so thank God this one showed up.
“It was Dan [Kjær Nielsen, drums]: he found this girl in Copenhagen whose grandad who’s now dead used to do modelling for books. He went to her house and got to look through the grandfather’s collection. He then found that one and we all saw that and it was pretty evident that was what the record looked like.”
It’s not only a captivating image but it also acts as a sensory primer for the ten songs on Beyondless. “A good album cover burns itself into the inside of your brain and then you can’t really disassociate the music from the cover. A lot of records, the album cover is so not-detachable from the music.” There’s a pause. “I’m trying to think of really great albums with really shit covers, but nothing really comes to my mind.”
Beyondless is out now through Matador / Remote Control.
The article was originally published on Brag Magazine