Monday, October 20, 2014

album review: 'plowing into the field of love' by iceage

Last year when I wrote about the excellent debut album from Savages Silence Yourself - an album that landed on my year-end list of the best albums of 2013 - I talked about my odd introduction into post-punk, which wasn't through an old music collection or friends or an angry white boy phase, but two scattered collections of punk songs, singles and deep cuts. Since then, I've had a much greater chance to delve into the subgenre over the past year in my spare time, partially through hanging out on the edges of the dwindling goth scene in Toronto and half through increasingly deep dives into obscure music that has never touched the charts and only gets acclaim on - you guessed it - sites like Pitchfork.

And this time we'll be talking about Iceage, a Danish punk/post-punk act that immediately became a critical darling upon the release of their first album New Brigade in 2011. And really, it's easy to see why - not only was every member of the band younger than me, they had a knack for hard-edged melodic grooves and extremely explosive drumwork that brushed against hardcore but then was tempered with gothic lyrics that weren't so much angsty but bringing a certain brand of visceral, descriptive bleakness that was unsettling in its own right. They followed that album a year later with the more personal and much meatier record You're Nothing, which took the gothic edge of their debut and honed it much finer, striking directly at human insecurities and everything people do to conceal them, not shying away from putting themselves directly in the line of the fire. It was their first record on Matador - the same label as Savages, unsurprisingly - and it was a natural fit. That being said, I've never been a huge fan of Iceage - I sure as hell respect them, but their occasional choice to sacrifice great melodic grooves for a tempo change or out of nowhere breakdown occasionally frustrated me. Yeah, I know they're a punk act, but when the songs they do write are so strong, breaking them apart in that way kind of irked me.

That said, I wasn't surprised when the critical acclaim started pouring in for their newest album Plowing Into The Field Of Love, so I made sure to give it several listens - how did it turn out?

Well, honestly, it's probably Iceage's best album yet, and definitely their most surprising. Not only did they radically expand their sound, but they did it in a way that best accented their strongest features in terms of interesting melody lines and progressions. Yes, there will be a few people who consider the shift away from more traditionally hardcore music to be a questionable choice, but when the music delivered is this good, I can't complain. And make no mistake, Plowing Into The Field of love is a great album, with only a few minor problems that keep it from being one of my favourites of the year. 

So to start, we need to get the elephant in the room out of the way quickly, because while Iceage has always called back to the music of the past from acts like Bauhaus and Joy Division, this record show a much more explicit lineage to one of my all-time favourite acts, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, particularly their mid 80s to mid 90s output. And it makes sense, because both acts have similar roots in post-punk with gothic undertones, to expand their sound and go for that same type of grandiose, descriptive and often grotesque lyricism. It's all framed in stark, crippling honest language that doesn't shy away from moments of sheer beauty or pure human ugliness, and we certainly get a lot of the latter on this record. But Iceage still remains their own entity as a band, sometimes even going further than Nick Cave did on those albums in terms of instrumental experimentation. For one, the strings and acoustic guitars are more ragged, recalling less any air of elegance but a grimy dive bar, with rattling bass and sharply textured drums. And Iceage's usage of trumpets as strident melodic punctuation is a downright inspired choice that lends the album a strongly unique flavour outside any post-punk I've heard in a while. All of the elements lend this record a feeling of precarious desperation, the sort of songs that are played from a crumbling balcony or cliff-edge, and there are a lot of fantastic instrumental moments that highlight Iceage's skill in crafting potent songs. From the ominous piano line supported by the explosive snares on 'On My Fingers', the gurgling fuzzy guitars and great melody on 'The Lord's Favourite' that almost seems to call back to classic country and vintage rockabilly, the bass and kick-drum crescendos on 'Glassy-Eyed, Dormant, and Veiled' that balance amazingly well against the aggressive strumming and horns, the great guitar melody on 'Let It Vanish', the fantastic bouncy melodic progression with this chugging riff on 'Abundant Living', the lonely dreariness of 'Forever', and even the quiet moments like the almost vaudeville piano ballad 'Against The Moon' with every instrument feeling ragged yet still impressively beautiful, or the title track's acoustic potency that feels like the perfect finale track with the mournful horn melodies. I guess if I were to have an issue with the production and instrumentation, it'd probably be my usual issue with Iceage, in that there are still moments where they accelerate to collapse into a haze of noise that recalls a lot of the earlier work, or on tracks like 'Simony' and 'Cimmerian Shade' that feel a little too reminiscent of their post-punk past, and while the songs are still good, they don't fit as well with the more intricate construction of the rest of the album.

And that intricacy definitely has expanded to the lyrical construction, which has improved leaps and bounds over the sparse descriptions that drove their early work, mostly thanks to Ronnenfelt's improving grasp on English. And the songwriting intensifies this feeling through its primary theme: showing our singer as being on top of the world and drunk on his own power - and watching it all spiral out of control because he knows it is a position he hasn't earned. It completely punctures the arrogance of songs like 'On My Fingers', the stripper/prostitute sex song 'The Lord's Favourite', the gleeful hedonism of 'Abundant Living', and even the flagrant song about wasting time searching for true love on 'Against The Moon'. The underlying feel of depression and desperation to find anything real is palpable on these tracks, and the album gains some potent emotional weight when it starts diving into that internal dichotomy between arrogant assertions of power and the self-aware feelings of worthlessness that poisons every well of emotion. And it's best shown in the externalized feelings of his issues with his father which fill the middle tracks of the album as he sings from both points of view, and especially the title track which is a superb crystallization of the themes that emphasizes just how small he really feels in the face of a larger world, even despite his stature, because in the end he'll be buried in the field of love he plows just like everyone else. 

But If I were to take any issues with the songwriting - and on some level it feels really inconsequential, considering how much I love this style of poetry for its descriptive language and honest framing - but if we're going to make the Nick Cave comparison, he used that brand of songwriting to tell stories, to create worlds, to craft characters that would become iconic of his work. Iceage's focus is very different, more internal dealing with Ronnenfelt's personal neuroses - he is the main character of the majority of these songs, with only a few others fitting around the edges. And while he definitely sells his internal torment with potent emotion, the narrower focus requires you to seriously buy into his drama, which can feel inflated to match the more grandiose production. And this leads to the element I like the least about this album: Ronnenfelt's vocals. Now let me stress he's doing exactly what he should be doing on an album like this: he's going all out, pushing his voice to the limit to sell both his internal torment and newfound power. These are heady emotions and tough to keep balanced, and he nails this balance. But on a certain technical level, Ronnenfelt's vocals just feel a little underweight and lacking in real presence as of now to truly make these songs hit with real impact. Now I suspect this'll change over the course of the next few years - he's younger than me, for God's sake, and more tours and time will likely season his vocals and give them a little more gravitas, and to some extent said vocals match the themes of this album perfectly, showing the truth of him being out of his depth. But he hasn't quite gained the presence or technique to completely sell me on this transition to more epic-feeling material - don't get me wrong, he will get there, but I suspect it's maybe a year or so out.

But really, those are just nitpicks on an extremely solid album. It doesn't quite grip me as tightly as I'd prefer, but it's still a damn impressive record from an act making a risky musical choice and it paying off in the best possible way. In other words, it's a strong 8/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're looking for a kickass post-punk record from a band that shows a ton of promise to really go places. And while I'm inclined to both overrate and underrate this album thanks to the comparisons to Nick Cave, at the end of the day more bands in this direction can only be a good thing, and Plowing Into The Field Of Love by Iceage shows them as the clear frontrunners in that direction.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Silens! I started listening to this album and I am intrigued. I also think you would love the album "Rooms of the House" by La Dispute. It's a concept album that follows the same family throughout, and their eventual and heartbreaking collapse. Favorite songs would be "First Reactions After Falling Through the ice," "For Mayor in Splitsville," and the emotional album closer "Objects in Space." Everything is interconnected in the lyrics, and it is truly one of the best of the year.