Los Angeles-area rock quartet the Icarus Line earned themselves a footnote in rock history back in 2002 at the SXSW Festival when guitarist Aaron North smashed a display case containing a Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar (the band claims it was an act of liberation). Two years hence, that one moment defines the Icarus Line’s sophomore disc, Penance Soiree: guitars and destruction.
The Icarus Line, make no mistake, are one heckuva noisy post-punk brigade, and if you’re down with the L.A. hardcore scene, these guys are probably already on your radar. But for the uninitiated, here’s the Icarus Line’s musical recipe: A twin guitar attack (Alvin DeGuzman and the aforementioned North) trowels on guitar skronk while frontman Joe Cardamone’s vocals searches for cracks in the wall of sound and the jackhammer rhythm section of Don Devore (bass) and Jeff Watson (drums) beats any remaining smooth edges out of shape. (The preceding may have been the sloppiest sentence I’ve written in ages, but it’s in keep with the artful, ragged Icarus Line aesthetic.) Fans of such a sound will thrill to the band’s intelligent sonic assault; those who aren’t fans will at least find a few moments of respite on the album.
“Noisy” vs. “noise” is as thin a line to walk as there is in post-punk, and the Icarus Line nearly have their toes hanging over it. “Spit on It”‘s guitars are fuzzed-out to near-comical levels and they swirl and divebomb out of the speakers; through headphones, the tune is flat-out disorienting. “Big Sleep” takes the speaker trickery one step further, with North and DeGuzman each playing a completely different tune through a speaker. They’re not playing with each other, or even against each other—they’re just making a racket. I imagine the band’s practice space to feature a giant wall of speakers (a la the Darkness’ “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” video).
The band is more than mere axe-bludgeoners. They’ve got original ideas that show a willingness to experiment with music beyond speaker-hiccuping thrash; some ideas pan out, others, not so much. On the plus side, there are the moments where the Icarus Line catch their breath. Call me a wuss, and yeah, maybe easing up on the throttle is anathema to the scene from which the Icarus Line sprang, but I’ll be damned if the less-sprawling-guitar-mess songs aren’t the best parts of Penance Soiree. “On the Lash” conjures up a sinister jungle-y rhythm section that’s at least within shouting distance of “Sympathy for the Devil”, and is more hook-happy overall; the bluesy (!) stomper “White Devil” tosses in a horn section to brighten up the album (though it should be noted: To appease the “noisy” fans, the horns collapse into cacophony by song’s end); the guitars on “Spike Island” are chimes, not buzzsaws, and album closer “Party the Baby Off” re-imagines the Rolling Stones as a rough ‘n’ tumble L.A. outfit. The pop craftsman in me yearns for more tunes like those on Penance Soiree.
As for the misfires, it’s a matter of taste, but even the most experimental art-damaged punk fan would be hard-pressed to defend the annoying “Meatmaker”. The song aims to capture the drone of Pink Floyd’s “The Machine”, but instead sounds as if it was recorded next to Roger Waters’ unbalanced washing machine. Shine off, you crazy diamonds, please. And for a band that espouses the doctrine of smash, grab and run (see Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar anecdote, above) Icarus Line has a tendency to write songs that overstay their welcome. Three tunes (“Getting Bright at Night”, “Big Sleep” and “Sea Sick”) clock in at north of five minutes, and “Getting Bright” is nine minutes’ worth of droning guitar that I couldn’t groove on despite my best attempts.
So where does this all leave us? Well, even though it’s only their second album, the Icarus Line find themselves at a crossroads—will they focus on messy guitar flaying, spacey art-rock suites or (comparatively) concise rock tunes? Fortunately, both for the band and for their fans, Penance Soiree shows enough flashes of greatness to hint at an even better album in the future.