Sometimes, hubris isn’t exactly a bad thing, at least not with a band like Iceage that can back it up by channeling can’t-fake-it conviction and self-assured swagger into dynamic, viscerally charged music. Iceage walks the walk, so you know that its talk is never just talk, which is saying something for a young outfit that doesn’t shy away from making bold proclamations and unabashed rallying calls. With the skills to match their brawn, these Danish post-post-punks hearken back to the genre’s roots, boasting an aggro sound with an artistic bent. Maybe Iceage’s brutal approach brings hardcore to mind first and foremost, but it’s probably with the Fall and the earliest incarnation of Wire that the foursome shares its greatest affinity, getting in your face with an agit-poppy attitude.
Iceage’s stunning sophomore effort You’re Nothing builds on what they established on their bracing 2011 debut New Brigade, honing their chops and expanding a remarkably focused vision of how they want to execute their music. What’s most impressive about You’re Nothing is how Iceage adds layers of complexity and a subliminal catchiness to its sucker-punch blasts without attenuating the unflinching intensity that the group made its name with on New Brigade. That newfound depth is something you notice even on the bashed-up singles “Ecstasy” and “Coalition”, which surge with taut bass, careening drums, and breakneck guitars, yet open up with enough room to breathe and find a release. “Ecstasy”, in particular, bowls you over not just with sheer force, but also with deft changes of pace and texture, slipping in and out of mosh-pit frolicking and a sludgier grind in a completely organic way. “Coalition” might pull off an even neater trick, striking on a spontaneous combustion melody out of a chemical reaction between revved-up Hüsker Dü-ish guitars and buoyant rhythms.
While Iceage tightly packs 12 tracks into a half-hour on You’re Nothing, nothing about the album seems rushed or claustrophobic, the songs feeling spacious and fully developed as if their perpetual energy dynamics could suspend time. Even though adrenaline rushes like the aptly named “It Might Hit First” and the rocket-fueled “Rodfæstet” may check in at well under two minutes, Iceage isn’t racing against the clock so much as measuring itself against its own Platonic ideal of what a no-nonsense punk ditty should be, creating extreme soundscapes that let in just a little light and harmony to give you something to grab on to. No opportunity on You’re Nothing isn’t maxed out, not even with what you’d assume is a break-in-the-action in “Interlude”, which might actually show Iceage at its most experimental in its mix of crisp, martial drums and goth-esque ambience.
More awe inspiring are the longer tracks that push into the three-minute range, which provide Iceage bigger canvasses to show off an ever broadening palette. Constructing a full-fledged composition out of what sounds like a stray piece of Gang of Four shrapnel, “Burning Hand” starts with an angular riff, then speeds things up into screeching, earworming guitar lines, oddly tuneful in their own rumbling, tumbling way. On the flipside, “In Haze” turns Iceage’s typical gameplan inside out, pushing melodic guitars upfront, then letting the bruising beats and deafening wall of sound fall in behind them. But it’s “Morals” that’s the real centerpiece of You’re Nothing, taking all the elements that have made Iceage so compelling and shaping ’em into something cohesive where elastic bass lines, melancholy atmospherics, and hardcore riffage not only find a way to complement each other, but eventually fit together naturally. And along the way, Iceage somehow carves out the space to try new things on “Morals”, as dirge-like minor-key piano chords convey a sense of dramatic tension and add gravitas to frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s plaintive plea of “Where’s your morals?,” which comes off as both a soul-searching cry and a scathing indictment.
Indeed, Iceage’s musical maturation goes hand-in-hand with the questioning, even existential tone of Rønnenfelt’s vocals. Just compare some of the titles from New Brigade to those from You’re Nothing, as songs as ferocious as their names like “Rotting Heights” and “Broken Bone” are replaced by more searching pieces like the sneaky catchy “Wounded Hearts”. On the yearning “Ecstasy”, Rønnenfelt recognizes that life’s pleasures may be fleeting, but he also realizes the best way to deal is to seize the day, as he concludes, “But bliss is momentary anyhow / Yet worth living for / Take me now.” Similar sentiments drive the anthemic “Awake”, on which Rønnenfelt’s second thoughts on his lost youth – “In pleasant cages through adolescence / We’re out of time” – don’t keep him from trying to recapture what was urgent and vital about it, a feeling that the song’s go-for-broke energy and hint of Cure-like sweetness help to get across. And while you might think lines like “Dare you look into the abyss / Confront what you received / There’s a vile fury within us” on the bristling, Fall-like “Everything Drifts” express a despairing nihilism, the way Rønnenfelt delivers them makes you think he’s got everything to lose because Iceage plays the number like it has nothing to lose, as the rollicking rhythms and buzzsaw riffs push to the limits of maintaining control without quite losing it.
So when Rønnenfelt howls “Do you hear me!” on “Burning Hand”, he’s really asking the mother of all rhetorical questions, because Iceage, both musically and thematically, comes through loud and clear on You’re Nothing. Drawing you in precisely because it is so uncompromising and unrelenting, You’re Nothing is anything but nothing, a rare album where you can tell the artists put everything into it and you get just as much out of it.