[19 July 2011]
PopMatters Music Editor
If projecting an aura of mystery is some of the stuff that legends are made of, then precocious neo-punks Iceage might be on to the start of something big. At least part of what has made these Danish teens the toast of the blogosphere recently is the element of the unknown, as they’ve come out of nowhere—or, more precisely, Copenhagen—to deliver a visceral, attention-grabbing first effort with New Brigade. But a bigger reason why they’ve made such an impact in a rather brief period of time is that their throwback post-punk aesthetic belies their age and inexperience—they’re being touted as the subgenre’s latest saviors for channeling the sound and spirit of the likes of Wire and Joy Division. And these youngsters, consciously or not, have certainly helped to crank up the hype machine by showing a willingness to take up whatever mantle has been passed on to ‘em, not ones to shy away from whipping up rallying cries for the next generation of underground rockers.
Consisting of 12 tracks that clock in at a total of under half an hour, New Brigade wastes no time in showing that the newcomers are up to the challenge, as they pack a punk punch that’s reverent of their obvious reference points without giving into any anxiety of influence. While there’s no denying that New Brigade‘s short-and-sweet, slash-and-burn approach recalls Pink Flag, Iceage seems more eager, at this point, to direct its energies into earnest anthems and reckless bash-ups than it is to shoot for the formal elegance of Wire’s touchstone work. So you might recognize a bit of Wire’s cutting, angular guitar play on the blistering single “White Rune”, but it’s shrouded in a bit of messy feedback that exudes youthful exuberance. And really, “White Rune” proves Iceage owes just as much to the excesses of Joy Division, especially when you hear that grinding mechanized noise in the intro that can’t help but recall “Atrocity Exhibition”, and the force-of-nature that was early Nirvana, with a break-in-the-action guitar interlude that could’ve come from Bleach. Whatever its source of inspiration may be and however you want to divvy up the credit, the quartet’s mixing-and-matching of slice-and-dice riffs, dark-pop mood, and grunge heft is a winning formula that serves it well on New Brigade, like on the frenzied jabs of “Eyes” and the fuzzed-out goth of “Rotting Heights”.
But even as Iceage demonstrates that it’s pretty adept at following in some pretty big footsteps, New Brigade all but announces that this band is focused on creating its own history. You can hear it on the title track, an anthem that’s like a call-to-arms to Iceage’s own peer group: Set to thrashing, slicing guitars and propulsive, slightly off-kilter rhythms, singer-guitarist Elias Rønnenfelt comes up with Iceage’s own statement of purpose—“New brigade / Will never fade / It grows and grows / Could never end.” As bold as those words may be, New Brigade pretty much makes good on ‘em, thanks to an irrepressible energy that rarely flags and an instinctive sense of melody that’s unexpectedly relentless. There’s always a catchy refrain or guitar line on New Brigade that just peeks through the pounding, imposing soundscapes, like the way the almost cowpunk-ish passage on “Total Drench” stays with you or how the sharp New Wavey guitars cut through the thrilling doom-and-gloom of “Collapse”.
Indeed, a band with such an intuitive knack for songwriting and a sixth sense for how to balance what should be competing, even dissonant, textures isn’t doing anything but taking its own lead. As intense as it is poignant, “Remember” somehow finds room to breathe amidst the dense layers of compressed sound, as expansive guitar patterns play off of rat-a-tat tommy-gun drumming. Almost in spite of itself, it’s poppy without trying to be, as is New Brigade‘s centerpiece, “Broken Bone”. Cued up to alarm-like riffs that build to an intimidating mix of towering rhythms and blaring reverb, “Broken Bone” starts out like it’s all about raw power, until the oddly hummable, sing-songy vocals find a comfort zone where rough-hewn harmonies and brute-force instrumentation can coexist. It’s the best example of how Iceage never loses control when the band gets out of control, always holding on to some thread of melody that pulls the songs back from the brink even after going over.
So whether it’s the enigmatic profile that got Iceage noticed or all the name-checking and cross-referencing, New Brigade is really about a group that’s making a name for itself, now and in the future. Iceage, to riff off the band’s own words, isn’t going to fade any time soon, only grow and grow.