Iceage expands even further into gothic Americana.
Iceage has been plying their curious brand of post-hardcore for a decade now, constantly tweaking their formula as they move further and further away from their punkier origins. Their last LP, 2014’s Plowing Into the Field of Love, marked their most decisive step forward, mitigating their faster edge with a dark country-gloom redolent of Nick Cave. That new direction is simultaneously deepened and complicated by Beyondless, which finds the band expanding even further into gothic Americana. From the mournful saxophone that adds a keening, ominous introduction before the punchy riff and bassline of “Hurrah,” this is an album that ducks expectation and finds ways to insert surprises into even its most straightforward tracks.
Listen to the twang that infuses “Under the Sun,” lending a curious, Byrds-like tone to angular, post-punk clang that offers a bright counterpart to the hellish din. In the track’s final moment, a violin adds a mournful touch on top of all of this. “The Day the Music Dies” could pass for the best Jack White song in ages, a neo-Stones garage stomper with some bluesy sax floating around a riff that crunches so hard it borders on heavy metal. That track abruptly leads to the laid-back “Plead the Fifth,” a bar-band clap-along that places chiming guitar and piano chords on either side of the mix to leave a burbling bassline and copious tambourine strikes to dominate the middle space like a kind of roots-rock dub. The album sounds something like The Basement Tapes as recorded by Gang of Four, a baffling, compelling collision of two seemingly irreconcilable strands of art punk and Americana.
This newfound musical ambition is more than matched by Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s lyrics. “Hurrah” is a POV account of a soldier lost in his own bloodlust. “An abstract notion/ That I’m flagless at last/ I’m not fighting for a country/ I’m fighting to outlast,” he sings in the slurred dispassion of a serial killer chasing the fading high of murder like a drug addict numbed to all but the most extreme doses. “Catch It” is a sea-shanty love song that sways with drunkenness as Rønnenfelt adopts the guise of a fisherman recounting romance as a kind of angling, a push and pull of each side teasing and being sincere to gauge the other’s interest. Drunken confession extends to “Thieves Like Us,” which stumbles around ill-defined conspiracy theories with an amusing blend of paranoia and resigned acceptance.
These violent, dejected, still vaguely hopeful sketches certainly invite more Cave comparisons, but the band at last stakes out a complete identity with these songs. Listen to the bracing confidence behind “Pain Killer,” a runaway punk number with fills of strings and horns that only compound the chaos of its storming intensity. You can practically hear Rønnenfelt lean on the mic for emphasis when he groans knotty, evocative lines like “The road was serpentine/ A network of silken threads/ Spider’s trapping web/ Makes me rue the day.” “Under the Sun” reckons with dark pasts on a jagged, craggy road to redemption, underpinnings of swirling, dissonant viola leavened by rising guitar chords reflective of Rønnenfelt’s desire to be “closer to God.”
The album’s final two songs mark the highest water mark yet for the band. The closing title track features guitars plucked so fast that the notes bleed into a shoegaze wave of noise as Dan Nielsen’s drums balance skittering cymbals with calmer, more metronomic kick drum. The track swells with hope, Rønnenfelt lifting from his more detached enunciations to lurch with anticipation and a kind of euphoria as the band rises out of its murk. It’s the perfect closer, but even better is the penultimate track, “Showtime,” a full-bore mini-symphony that starts with spacious electronic hums before a muted trumpet guides the composition through a Stygian morass. Johan Suurballe Wieth’s guitar circles overhead before the track abruptly collapses into cabaret swing. Lyrically, the track’s sardonic treatment of music culture and art press is straightforward, but the song’s careening composition and theatrical swagger fit perfectly within the more elaborate tales of whales and woe. This is American Gods as rock, positing that the strange, violent and obscure as the blackened core of America’s identity. And just as that novel contained the insights of an Englishman, so too does this Danish quartet suggest that outsiders can sometimes see more clearly into the heart of America than its natural-born citizens.