Aggression takes many forms. On its first album, 2011′s New Brigade, Danish punks Iceage launched a frantic, youthful attack that combined the unruly attitude of hardcore with the dead-eyed clangor of post-punk and industrial music while layering everything with a brooding gothic haze. It was perfect walking-around-a-rainy-city-feeling-angry music; songs like “White Ruin” had the power to transform you into a petulant 18-year-old, gazing upon a demolished landscape and wishing for nothing more than to be swallowed by the void. On its second album, You’re Nothing, the band has refined its sound, peeling away some of the clamor and broadening its emotional palette, probing new depths of loneliness and psychological turmoil. But is it still aggressive? The group’s guitarist Johan Surrballe Wieth put it best in a recent Fader interview: “All emotions can be really intense.”
That sense of intensity and urgency has always defined Iceage, and it’s perhaps what’s made the band seem so inscrutable and inaccessible to outsiders and skeptics. “Do we really need another band that sounds sorta like pissed-off Wire?” is one of the questions often lobbed at Iceage’s fervent supporters, as if the world were already full of good bands doing decent Wire approximations. (Hint: It’s not.) Sure, what Iceage does is not particularly unique or groundbreaking—the group emerged from a vibrant Copenhagen scene full of incredibly talented and like-minded musicians—but it’s the execution of sacred punk tenants, the fidelity and reckless precision of it all, that lends the band its propulsive energy. If that sounds intangible, it’s because it is.
Iceage is a band concerned with both momentary catharsis and larger seismic shifts in mood. Opener “Ecstasy” rumbles and quakes with queasy tension, the drums and bass threatening to crumble away as singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, still all throaty contempt and moaning sexuality, cries, “Each night I lie awake in bed.” As the song refashions itself around him, he lets loose the band’s vaguely totemic battle cry: “PRESSURE! PRESSURE!” Where many of New Brigade’s bludgeoning missives were lyrically obtuse, You’re Nothing finds Rønnenfelt and the rest of the band circling around key themes like self-loathing, disillusionment, existential dread and paralysis. It’s a heavier and more lyrically ambitious album, but it’s not without moments of beauty and grace. “Awake” opens with an almost jangly guitar part that hints at the slightly cleaner, moderately tasteful adjustments the band has made since signing to Matador, but then the drums kick and Rønnenfelt starts ranting about being trapped and running out of time. Around the two-minute mark you can literally hear the sound of glass shattering. Even at its prettiest, Iceage is defiantly bleak.
Though the record does contain a few curious experiments (the sparse, menacing “Interlude” and the chipper riffs of “In Haze”), there’s plenty of punk gristle for the mosh pit here, like the wicked one-two punch of “Wounded Hearts” and “It Might Hit First.” These songs won’t convert skeptics, but they’ll give the faithful a few bloody noses. The most compelling track on the album is “Morals,” undoubtedly the record’s most moving song, a stomping piano-driven ballad that sounds like the Cure drained of all of its romanticism and shot through with a bracing, intimidating physicality and a surprising amount of empathy. “If I could leave my body/Then I would,” sings Rønnenfelt, encapsulating the song’s oddly transportive power. The group drew inspiration for the track from Italian singer Mina’s “L’Ultima Occasione,” but “Morals” has a quaking, ruminative power that’s entirely its own. “Where’s your morals? Where’s your morals?” screams Rønnenfelt.
What are Iceage’s morals? As many have pointed out, the band has an irritating and dumb (but historically preceded) tendency to flirt with and use fascist iconography in its artwork and videos. Arguments around the band’s politics have flared up again with the new album, and though writers like Louis Pattison have done an admirable job of putting the band’s semiotic cues in context, this probably won’t be the end of the conversation. These discussions are necessary, but most of the arguments feel disconnected from the band’s music, which is far more personal than political. That doesn’t necessarily exonerate the band’s thorny aesthetic choices, but the battles that the members of Iceage wage are primarily within themselves. When Rønnenfelt cries, “That’s why you’re nothing” on the album’s closing track, he sounds thoroughly disgusted with himself, disappointed in his own feeble being and doubtful of his future. It’s music about anxiety and shame; there’s not much pride—nationalistic, racial or otherwise—to be found.