Penance Soiree is one of the weirder flash-in-a-pan moments of the ‘00s. The album, the sophomore outing by the Los Angeles rockers of the Icarus Line, was hugely acclaimed throughout the year of its release, and it later went on to get a spot in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, a daunting achievement considering the group still had yet to really jump out into the rock scene in a significant way. Yet in the on-going discussion about “the death of rock ‘n’ roll” and the many sub-discussions involved therein (which, to be honest, are a little silly and overblown), at best the Icarus Line will get a passing mention in a footnote, and the only thing that’ll be referenced is Penance. Now, with the benefit of hindsight available to listeners in 2013, it’s easy to see both why Penance felt like such a force back then and why the band hasn’t maintained the relevance it had on that album.
The answer is simple: people want retroism and aren’t typically clamoring for the straightforward, which is what the Icarus Line does incredibly well. Consider the ever-growing popularity of the Black Keys, who better than any other remaining rock revival outfit capture the ethos of the style. What’s en fuego isn’t vintage rock, but rock that sounds like it’s trying to sound like vintage rock. The fusion of classic and contemporary rock is one that’s produced rewarding results—the Black Keys’ Brothers is one of many examples—but at the same time it’s come at the price of abandoning the very stylistics that are being praised in the first instance. Dan Auerbach’s fine skills as a producer don’t detract from the fact that a lot of what he does sounds undeniably “hipster”—the equivalent of buying a shiny new Gibson guitar and doing your damndest to make it sound 30 years older than it actually is. When groups have opted for a more traditionalist route, they’ve typically flown under the critical and popular radar. Look to the Elms’ incredible 2009 LP The Great American Midrange, a rootsy, authentic take on Midwestern rock in the vein of John Mellencamp, which has yet to be thrown around in discussion with records like White Blood Cells. Tried and true though a formula it is for rock ‘n’ roll, the “just plug it in and jam” technique isn’t enough for some. Rock music nowadays, while diverse and continually expanding, is too frequently run through a gamut of Instagram filters.
The Icarus Line takes umbrage with this. “Rock ‘n’ roll has been turned into this, like, Mötley Crüe charade, a parade of fucking dicks. It’s the ‘80’s again,” frontman Joe Cardamone told The Quietus. His oversimplified misappropriation of an important legacy in the genre aside, this fervor to celebrate the traditional facets of rock, which Cardamone rightly points out are commonly found in the same underground circles that the Icarus Line sprang from, has motivated a truly righteous slab of rock music in Slave Vows, the band’s fifth studio recording. With 2007’s Black Lives at the Golden Coast and 2011’s Wildlife, these guys rode comfortably under the radar, putting out quality, distortion-driven music without ever garnering the attention they did with Penance. The stakes have been raised by substantial strides with Slave Vows, an album that any band should be proud to call its own, “traditional” or otherwise.
Things kick off with the ten-minute epic “Dark Circles”, which incorporates the primordial heft of Swans and the feedback worship of the Stooges to a doomy effect. The influence of the former is particularly huge on this record. The contrast between the repetitive, groove-heavy riff in the first six minutes of “Dark Circles” and the moody coda is classic Gira, who used that very tactic on his career-summarizing opus The Seer just last year on cuts like “Lunacy”. As if this portentous jam weren’t enough, should-be-single “Don’t Let Me Save Your Soul” picks up a second later, teasing the listener with a series of staccato palm-muted strums, followed with a bass drum that matches its war-march rhythm. Sure enough, the song blows up in just the way one would expect it to, resulting in a huge, anthemic chorus that would could have very well been a top 10 rock radio hit in an earlier life and maybe, just maybe, in this one. These two tracks, the best on Slave Vows, set the intensity at the maximum possible level quite early into the game. Unsurprisingly, this is a record that has to wind down; the song lengths shrink as they work toward their conclusion in the kinetic “Rat Ass”, which concludes the LP in a glorious cacophony.
Even as Slave Vows lets its steam out following its slightly overloaded front half, there are still moments of amp-rattling power that keep the momentum at a steady cranked-to-11. The bluesy simmer of “Dead Body” features the album’s most energetic moment, when low bass rumblings give way to a wicked riff, one that’s sure to be a live highlight. “No Money Music” may be a quick little thing, but it makes its two minutes as much of a gut-punch as possible, channeling the same full-throttle vibe that made Boris’ 2005 collection of Stooges worship Pink so memorable. “Laying Down for the Man” is the kind of music that action movie chase scenes live for, with some nice wah-wah guitar to boot.
Best of all, however, is the completely unpretentious attitude that went into the making of this music. One can quibble over how dead rock actually is, but it truly is noteworthy when material that sounds as old-school as this is so well honed and crafted. It’s a testament to the fact that even as generations change, there will always be people in the new generation who can respect and put their own indelible stamp on “the old ways”. The men of the Icarus Line are such people, and with Slave Vows they’ve made an LP that celebrates rock music without ever coming off as a manifesto. Cardamone’s disdain for the variant threats of rock music current may invoke criticisms of youthful senility, but don’t let the press quotes fool you: Slave Vows may be a firm raising of the finger to “hipster rock”, but only in its willful bucking of current trends, not in the things it actually says. The rough-around-the-edges production, the squally storms of feedback, and the loudly pulsating rhythms of this record are just the result of a group of guys going into a studio, plugging in their instruments, and playing. It’s rarely that simple, but somehow with the Icarus Line it is. An eminently powerful work of rock ‘n’ roll from start to finish, Slave Vows hasn’t saved the soul of rock music, but it sure as hell has revitalized it.