Iceage are getting crotchety in their old-ish age. Now in their late twenties, the one-time punk-rock prodigies move beyond the churn and clang of their first three albums to push themselves in new directions on Beyondless, their fourth LP. It’s just such a dour listen.
Not all of it. The Danish band hasn’t lost the knack for shockwave riffs, as demonstrated by the thunderous blast of horns, guitars and percussion that surges through the start of “Pain Killer” (featuring vocals from Sky Ferreira). And Iceage still have a taste for ruthless social commentary of the sort that singer and guitarist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt delivers on opener “Hurrah.” Over a speedy, almost triumphal blend of guitars and bass, he offers a derisive take on the mindset behind military interventionism: “Because we can’t stop killing/ And we’ll never stop killing/ And we shouldn’t stop killing/ Hurrah.” Chew on that, John Bolton.
Too often, though, these songs come off as cheerless, turgid manifestos. Rønnenfelt sounds like he’s issuing dire prophecies on “Under the Sun,” where Eastern-tinged guitars circle a thudding, ponderous rhythm. There’s a whiff of heavy psychedelia in the droning instrumentation and reverby vocals on “Catch It,” while the clattering drums on “The Day the Music Dies” are so prominent that they overshadow the dynamic horn parts and a woozy piano line. In fact, much of the album is inexplicably noisy, and not in a lo-fi punk-rock way, or even a noise-rock way—more like the band recorded with the windows open on a windy day near a crowded pedestrian mall, and didn’t worry about audio bleed. It’s distracting, like being unable to identify the source of a low-grade humming sound in the background.
Rønnenfelt’s vocals cut through any hum: he sings in a rawboned voice that has gotten bigger and rougher since 2011’s New Brigade, which came out when he was 19. He’s gotten wordier since then, too—some of the lyrics on Beyondless go on and on, and get a little grandiose. He’s “fondling the thighs of forfeit” in one of the seven verses to “The Day the Music Dies,” and refers to “echo chambers of fermented ethanol” on “Thieves Like Us,” backed by off-kilter guitars and a snicking hi-hat cymbal. “Showtime” is a bleak take on the business of celebrity and fame, balanced (kind of) by the noirish feel from a muted trumpet and faint, chiming guitar. The song is one of the places where the band’s willingness to experiment yields an interesting result, but what’s missing here, and throughout Beyondless, is melody.
Iceage are plenty capable as musicians, and Rønnenfelt clearly has a lot to say as the frontman. But his diatribes would be more palatable with a little sweetener—after all, a refrain that sticks in your head seems more effective than lyrics that just hammer at your skull. The latter outweighs the former here, and the result is an album that is bold and ambitious, but not really a pleasurable listen.