Icarus Line’s Valhallan Finesse

Icarus Line
Slave Vows
Agitated

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Actually, there is such a thing as semi-proggy, power metal indie, and has been for at least fifteen years, the amount of time Icarus Line has been performing and putting out records. Like Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s more feral little brothers with a taste for Ian Astbury, Jeffrey Lee Pierce and the more fiery brimstone side of rock ‘n’ roll, Icarus Line are the arena rock act it’s OK to like. Riff-ready and not shy or ironic about it, the most surprising thing here, perhaps, is how much they’re the band you’ve been meaning to get into but didn’t know it.

Seriously: on occasion one wants to just revel in an unreconstructed rawk band that unapologetically rocks the fuck out without shredding your intelligence and the Line put that particular foot forward every foot of the way on new album Slave Vows. Yeah, maybe singer Joe Cardamone over-emotes a bit at times – his “It’s alive!” screams on “Dead Body” are as larynx-scraping as anything Priest or Crüe – but it’s in that good ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll rebel way and so it’s not only forgiven but warmly welcomed. Same goes for the Van Halenesque guitar stylings of (returned original member) Alvin Deguzman, who, immediately after said vocal wailings on “Dead Body” – and elsewhere – proceeds to out-Eddie Eddie. If you lived through the 70’s or early 80’s – or even know some aging rocker uncle who did (or are one of those legions of kids born in the 90’s getting retro-high on Sabbath and Zep) – this is the guitar sound you’ve been secretly pining away for in the teenage bedroom of your heart. All of which would be but so much wankery were it not for the fact that the tracks on here are, without exception, superlative (and slightly terrifying) slabs of forceful, expressive, rocksmithery. If it seems the band is angling for the Frazetta-painted pantheon that’s because it is, displaying along the way skills and brio enough – in surplus even – to belong there.

Most admirable, for a band trading in the hallmarks of epic, Valhallan rock, is the extent to which the band resists lapsing into bombast. The material is loud, fierce, uncompromising with its incendiary lash, material that nearly begs for heavy – and all-too-easy – dollops of over-the-top pomposity. And yet these lads know better, intuiting when and when not to let Thor’s hammer fly. Can’t call it ‘restraint,’ exactly – ‘restraint’ and ‘Icarus Line’ are contractually obligated to never appear in the same sentence – but we can call it maturity, or, if that’s too staid-sounding, acumen. After weathering criticism for his initial foray into engineering and producing the band himself on 2011’s Wildlife, Cardamone’s clearly worked on his behind-the-board skills in the interim, as Slave Vows, besides sounding as big as it needs to, which is plenty big, also boasts arrangements and a command of dynamics well beyond their earlier work. The result is an album, and a band, that sound wholly unintimidated by the concept of ‘going for it.’ They sound, in fact, afraid of nothing.

icarus line

After the eerily haunting, ominous minute and a half buzz that brings the album to life, “Dark Circles” builds and electrically howls until it’s embroiled in a landscape of trouble, at which point the band falls back into a ghost town salvage yard blues that would fit neatly on this year’s stunning Crime & The City Solution album, Cardamone’s voice edged in similar twinges of sandpapered desperation. “Don’t Let Me Save Your Soul” trespasses, predictably perhaps, on Nick Cave territory but with more crunch, more bite per beat. A most delicious nightmare, “Marathon Man” uses some knife sharp guitar squalls and a spoke-sung middle lyric break to get its sinister asylum storyline across, Lance Arnao’s bass creeping underneath like there’s something in the basement. There’s a quick psych thriller in “No Money Music” before we resume our epic journey, “City Job” sporting a military drum cadence and a post-apocalyptic post-punk storm of a thrum that won’t leave you alone but will leave you breathless, the Stooges giving birth to Killing Joke.

While this whole record’s got tiger’s blood in it, its central operating principle one of brutal beauty, the only track that approaches being truly brutalizing is the wall of sonic assault that is “Laying Down For The Man,” the anger incipient brawling out of the speakers via Arnao’s accusing bass and Cardamone and Deguzman going toe to toe in a primal screaming contest. But, in another sign that Icarus Line know how to temper their caterwauling anger to great effect, in the middle of the mauling tempest here the band calms down into a gentler fit of rage for a few measures before pegging the needle again and heading for the finish.

Compared to that, the fangs-out fuck-off finale “Rat’s Ass” – itself a roiling spree of unleashed cat fever guitar with drummer Ben Hallett punishing his kit like he’s on a 3-day speed bender and Cardamone spittin’ venom every other line – floats like a proverbial butterfly, though indeed it’s the sting of the bee that you’ve gotta watch out for.

Eight songs, forty-five minutes, an artful pummeling of the senses and now it’s time for me to come clean here: I didn’t expect to like this record. The term ‘post-hardcore’ hasn’t ever done much for me. Assigned Slave Vows, I planned on giving it as objective and judicious a review as possible then moving on. Let me be clear here: I love this record. The inner kid I will always be was back in the middle 70’s, back at Winterland on a Friday night with the great blue cloud hanging overhead and the Marshall walls of sound, the heavy joy of genuine escape lifting me out of my East Bay mindset and setting me adrift in the misty mountain elevations behind my closed eyes. Any record does that is a record that transcends. Slave Vows is an honest, hard-rocking, intelligent and insatiable piece of work, full of discerning rage and raw power and you need to hear it now.