Ambition Raging in their Heart – Iceage’s “Plowing Into the Field of Love”

Iceage
Plowing Into the Field of Love
Matador

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Continuing to cover a few of 2014’s essential releases that slipped by us the first time, with Plowing Into the Field of Love we have to admit: we missed an important one.

The still-building post-punk resurgence that’s risen from trickle to torrent over the past half-decade or so has been nothing less than manna to your aging correspondent, an aesthetic boon to which he’s powerless to resist, basking in the moody, angular tropes that chased him to London in 1979 at the age of twenty-three. How heartening, how thrilling it’s been to witness the vigor, the ardor, the dedication with which young bands around the world are pursuing the timeless threads of his own youth. As gratifying as it is, however, to have those original passions validated by a devoted, deeply talented new generation, a nagging, questioning speck has burrowed like a burr down behind the wildly appreciative smile: whence the adventurousness, the fearless tireless quest to expand, explore, and experiment that was at the rabid heart of post-punk at its truest essence, that drove the likes of the Pop Group, the Slits and countless others, even (gasp!) the Clash? In that environment, in most quarters, reliance on the expected was the enemy. To some extent we’re beginning to see trends toward broadening palettes as bands allow their sound to naturally evolve – the Estranged come to mind – or, like Savages, lend themselves to outré collaborations that, one has to think, will inexorably bleed into the band’s next effort once they’re by themselves again back in the studio. Iceage, meanwhile, aren’t waiting. Plowing Into the Field of Love, the Copenhagen band’s third, shocks with its charged impetus, its sound’s open floor plan, and, more than anything else, the manner and depth with which the band has more or less shredded its former templates like so much caution thrown to a hurricane wind.

Known for their rather ruthless, compact, and implicitly violent approach to the form, to the extent even of having naively baited fascism-tinged controversy, Iceage would reasonably have been the last band one would have expected to dispense with the playbook, which makes it all the more exciting – and important – if only for the seeming reckless disregard for what their fanbase were no doubt clamoring for. However, being in possession of the restlessness gene is one thing, brazenly allowing it to express itself quite another. Succeeding, with a kind of fuck-you panache, that’s a step beyond and Iceage have taken it, well past the pale.

Broadly speaking, Plowing bristles with ingenuity, laced with tics and a sonic twitchiness, soaked in regret-shaded fury that has the band (Dan Kjaer Nielsen drums, Johan Surballe Wieth guitar/viola, Jakob Tvilling Pless bass/mandolin, Elias Bender Rønnenfelt vocals/words) coming on quite often like a feverish cross between the more feral impulses of Nick Cave and the daring of These New Puritans (not least on the harsh, challenging impressionism of “Cimmerian Shade“). It is, in fact, hard at times to not hear this as a slashing, menacing Nordic version of gothic Americana, Woven Hand had David Eugene Edwards been raised by arctic wolves on the gritty outskirts of Copenhagen. What this means, crucially, is while there’s no loss of icy brimstone energy, the band’s core essence, minus that quasar crush of sound, is allowed to breathe and roam. The nature of the beast is far more exposed now and, if anything, it’s all that more bracing.

iceage-pr-photo-sept-2013

[photo courtesy Matador PR]

 

With the appearance well before the album’s October 2014 release date of first single “The Lord’s Prayer” that romps a kind of disturbed country shuffle like it’s Johnny Cash after a heavy dose of klonopin mixed with meth, the initial shock and sonic double takes should have subsided by now, and we can all lean back into our chairs and take stock, let ourselves take pleasure in “Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled”‘s tortured Morricone trumpet, its buried but flagrant flamenco acoustic, the plangent frankness of tone as Rønnenfelt takes orphan stabs at an absent father, the ominous sense that the sins of said father will soon to be repeated by the son lending a deliciously dark edge. We can let the clean martial beat of “Let It Vanish” fight against being subsumed by the intestinal thrum of bass before the chorus takes off like Gun Club run emotionally amok, or we can follow the band across the hellhound trail of “Forever,” led to the ocean’s depths by outlaw electric guitar riffs, gunshot drums, a viola sounding through the thickets at water’s edge. Really, this can’t be said enough: the widened range of atmospheres on display here, when laid next to Iceage’s first two records, is simply staggering. Few if any of the current passel of young bands have pushed themselves past their own prescribed limits like this (and please by all means use the comment section below if there’s some band you know of that could challenge that statement). It’s not been exactly frequent in rock’s long life – if the form were a person it would be on Medicare or dead by now – that a band has so dramatically altered their approach and arrived with goods worth selling. The fact is, in the case of PITFOL, the one time the band comes closest to Iceage 1.0 – the lunging “Stay,” two minutes and change of bite and snarl – the less interesting the record becomes. To the lad’s eternal credit, that’s the sole instance of falling back onto their spiky laurels.

Whether it be the piano dramatics and creepy messiah compexities of opener “On My Fingers” – half possessed ballad, half apocalyptic gospel rant – the frankly astonishing “Cimmerian Shade” with its Thor-worthy bottom end, its assualtive manic layering of intricate-but-brutal guitars (three of them? Four?), its controlled unhingedness showing more pure grit than anything else I heard last year, the dark and ruthless drive of “Simony” or the revelatory anti-revelation  of the title track that closes the album like a kind of twisted, self-obsessed liturgy of doomed exceptionalism, one imagining Hazel Motes recast in tarnished Danish steel as guest Asger Valentin’s trumpets signal like Gabriel in the wings, the band builds itself into a storm, waves crash over waves and Rønnenfelt sings as if there are animals clawing at his larynx, there’s nowhere to hide on this album, no place to blithely turn away and pretend this isn’t an absurdist hell we’re all living through. The dynamics of this band and how they rip together through the material here is the aural equivalent of the gnashing of teeth, the rending of garments, the howling of wind. There’s always been a red-toothed rawness to Iceage but it’s been in an odd way shielded from us by the sheer rough jet-blast of sound that took front stage on their first two records. Unveiled and visible now, we see the wounds, we can feel how fresh they are, feel them as if they’re our own.

An obviously pivotal record, Plowing Into the Field of Love is also an epiphanal one, and though I surprise myself saying this, if this record is sat atop the shoulder of any long ago giant it’s Marquee Moon. Similar in intent – a loosely-themed album-wide pursuit of an evasive, ultimately inimical redemption – similar in shadow and tone (if markedly more visceral, it sounds as if blood is running from a cut above the eyes here, making it difficult to appeal to that ghostly orb in the night sky), Plowing is the cry of a band breaking restraints, escaping out some splintered doors, singing of their hounded new-found freedom, unable all the while to shake the sense it won’t – can’t – last. It’s not quite among the greats as Marquee Moon is, it hasn’t the diamond-sharp jaggedness of that record’s immortal melodic gifts, but the strive is there, the burn is there, ambition rages at this album’s heart.

Whereas it’s probably not appropriate to suggest we rejoice in material this dark, this mired in obsession, deviancy, and alienation – instead we let ourselves wallow in a slurry of insinuated and/or explicit perfidy and pain that’s all too easily recognized – we can and should at least rejoice that Iceage have found their right stride and, with it, their voice.