Iceage at EartH, December 7th
Iceage’s Elias Bender Rønnenfelt has the mesmerising arrogance of a cult leader, and a frankly dangerous tendency to gamble everything on the present moment. Without good songs, he’d be a truly insufferable lead singer – but with a discography as good as Iceage’s to plow through, he’s magnetising. Notorious for giving prickly interviews and sneering through elegantly-verbose songs about how he’s “The Lord’s favourite one”, during the night’s set he trips backwards onto his ass while dancing and later drops the mic with an unceremonious thud while singing, without so much as a grimace or self-deprecating smile – this is a musician who does not make mistakes, but rather one who instils so much confidence in his audience that every would-be slip is automatically spun as performance art, or hallucination, or well-you-wouldn’t-understand.
The quartet first surfaced as frightening teenagers on 2011’s New Brigade, an album of dead-serious post-punk spiked by militaristic imagery that alluded to Denmark’s ancient past of pagan warmongering and history as a Nazi vassal state. Whereas You’re Nothingbrought more of the same, 2014’s Plowing Into the Field of Lovewas an abrupt shift, channelling loose rockabilly and outlaw country, with Rønnenfelt assuming the mantle of licentious poet as much as baby-faced gang-leader. And on Beyondlessearlier this year, their transformation into a decadent art-rock band was complete, finding rich source material in ‘70s luxury rock and the Rolling Stones at their debauched peak.
They still make music that can shred your nerve endings, still recognise the potency of violence as an artistic stimulant – make no mistake – but nowadays they sound like they’d rather pour you a vintage Scotch than smash the bottle over your head. As for all that is savage about Iceage, ultimately they are romantics, grandiose and hopeful rather than filthy and truly self-indulgent. Their music and imagery is violent partly for the thrill of it, but never in glorification. Rather it is in vilification, their viciousness a succumbing to infection caught from a disgusting world rather than any personal predilection. Their music is a doomed fight between love and poetry on one side and the toxic lure of greed on the other, charismatically vicarious of our sins to horrify us – you need the towering self-belief of someone like Rønnenfelt to pull that off.
Like all great albums, Beyondlesshas a killer opening trio of tracks, with which they open the set just before midnight. ‘Hurrah’, ‘Pain Killer’ and ‘Under The Sun’ come across thick and swampy without the layers of extra guitars, piano, brass, and vocals that appellate them on record – something is definitely lost from this stripping back, but their sheer power and filth ensure they’re still a spectacular live proposition. “Most when it’s almost like a bane, she arrives like a siren refrain” sings Rønnenfelt like a Shakespeare villain in limerence, continually approaching the very edge of the stage before retreating back, playing with chaos, a pendulous earring dangling from his left ear. He came onstage in a Paddington-yellow jumper rolled halfway up his forearms, but this is jettisoned before it can be bleached with sweat in favour of a shirt unbuttoned to the clavicle, Nick Cave-style – again, everyone knows Rønnenfelt’s initial choice of attire was nota mistake.
‘The Lord’s Favourite’ – the single which heralded their 2014 rebirth – draws huge cheers. The crowd sing along to every word of Rønnenfelt’s vampiric visions of a luxury sex romp, hundreds pledging “I do believe in heaven and I do believe it’s real” at the moment of climax. More cuts from Beyondlessfollow, including the title track, whose quick triple metre draws sounds like the grinding of heavy industry from Dan Kjær Nielsen’s drums. Nielsen is excellent at not only keeping tempo but disguising it for dramatic effect – his fills frequently fly past any landmarks that would indicate he’s still playing at the same tempo as everyone else, a disorienting blur of deadened tom-toms and snare, making it all the more satisfying when he crash-lands right back on the beat. Throughout the set he commands many songs to subtly flow between different speeds across to add extra zip to the chorus, without losing control.
They play the excellent new non-album single ‘Balm of Gilead’, but not its partner, ‘Broken Hours’. Both suggest there’s plenty more where Beyondlesscame from. But that glimpse of the future is followed by a return to the past, with second-half runs through three early tracks. The sparse power of ‘White Rune’, ‘Ecstasy’, and ‘Morals’, certainly sounds different to their more densely-textured newer material, but not to the same extent as it does on record, what with the ‘melodies’ tonight only coming from one bass and one guitar, and Rønnenfelt retro-fitting his loose-jawed delivery onto tracks which originally featured a blithe monotone – that’s when he’s not launching himself into the crowd before surfing from the back to the front and clambering onstage again. The penultimate track is unreleased new cut ‘Power Ballad’, and the set closer ‘Catch It’, a single from Beyondless. With its meandering, pitch-bending guitar and country-style drumming, it starts off about as far from their roots as Iceage have got. “Come make it real” Rønnenfelt implores us, an artist’s mantra. But the track’s middle section is frenetic – scowling guitars and pummelling drums, a dip back into the past; Rønnenfelt plunges into the crowd again.
While Iceage seem like the kind who might disdain the idea of an encore, something in Rønnenfelt likes hearing the crowd begging for more – and they oblige their requests with ‘Plowing Into the Field of Love’, whose complex rock guitar line and balladlike composure presaged Beyondlessmore than any other track. It has a suitable air of finality, and is a rapturous closer. “I am plowing into the field of love, in the dying light” Rønnenfelt explains, capturing the essence of a singer who truly believes he can save the world from itself.