Wednesday, May 9, 2018

album review: 'beyondless' by iceage

I'll freely admit I had no idea what to expect with the newest Iceage project - and a huge part of that is directly linked to what happened with their third record Plowing Into The Field Of Love in 2014. Originally they had put out some post-punk that was explosive and twisted but didn't really have a lot of internal direction or consistency, but that changed in a big way with this record, pulling upon more elaborate arrangements that expanded their sound while still maintaining that nervy, unstable edge and killer melodic grooves. More than ever the comparison was less Bauhaus and more Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and given that the writing had stepped up considerably to match, I was onboard for this sonic progression.

And thus maybe I shouldn't have been that surprised when I heard that Iceage might be slowing things down a bit for this record, expanding their instrumental palette, even recruiting Sky Ferreira to play the P.J. Harvey to Elias Ronnenfelt's Nick Cave. Now granted, any more predictions would be almost certain to fail - I certainly don't think I could have called the progression for other post-punk acts like Ought and Preoccupations this year into more melodic territory, with one not sticking the landing and the other producing one of the best of their career thus far - but that doesn't mean I wasn't curious, given how long it took for us to get this record. So alright, how was Beyondless?

Well, I was right about one thing: I don't think anybody could have predicted the progression of this record if they tried, the sort of wide-reaching pivot that lands one foot in Tender Prey-era Nick Cave, another in garish vaudeville kitsch painted in gory colours, and yet another in the sort of slow-building, layered, primal crescendos that have underscored an act like Swans, except rammed into perhaps the band's tightest and more immediately catchy record to date. And if all of this sounds like a whirling nest of contradictions that might click tonally but could never work in structure... I don't know what to tell you, somehow Iceage pulled it off, and they delivered a pretty damn great record along the way, one where I'm not at all surprised is racking up critical acclaim.

Of course, a record like this almost seems to be custom-made to be a critical darling to a very specific subset of critics: those who'll come for the raucous, borderline claustrophobic production and crushing walls of post-punk, and stay to be enraptured by the debauched nihilism and warped romantic sentiments. And while I do not think this project is better than Full Circle Nightmare, it's hard not to see at least some creative DNA with Kyle Craft, or perhaps the other side of the same coin - they both pull on the same brand of ragged gothic chic where the stage might collapse beneath them but goddamn it the show is going on regardless. But if that's the case, if Kyle Craft is the wild but measured professional with the observational eye to the relationships that slip away, Iceage's frontman Elias Ronnenfelt is the drunken mess that somehow sticks the landing time and time again and hates himself for it. And his flat, jagged vocal tone perfectly emphasizes it, lacking the throaty presence of a Nick Cave but still able to capture the preening, mostly coherent post-punk snarl he needs where you actually feel taken aback when the disaffected veneer drops away on 'Take It All'. Make no mistake, despite the fact that his vocals don't quite always have the presence to match the waves of instrumentation behind him, he's got more than enough charisma to command the room - and when this album tips towards vaudeville kitsch, you realize how essential that can be.

So let's talk about the instrumentation and production here, and where the band has shown arguably their most refined work to date, especially on a pure compositional level. Gone are the wild, go-nowhere instrumental digressions or descents into untamed noise, this record is tight as hell, anchored to the roiling gallop of thicker bass and explosive drumwork, especially in the snares and kickdrums. And while the noisier guitar pickups still spark and seethe, there's a much greater focus on melodic interplay from the very first song 'Hurrah', especially with the groove and especially when the waves of arranged strings or blasts of horns come rushing in. And indeed, it's hard to deny that in the slightly scuzzy, ragged pickup of these horns and strings and slow crescendo build on 'Under The Sun' or the brittle acoustics bounding the noise of 'Catch It' or the marimba touches on 'Plead The Fifth', there's a lot of creative DNA shared with Swans, just in a far tighter package. And even with that you can tell there's a level of instability on a lot of these songs courtesy of the unsteady tempos that disrupt the slightly more conventional melodic interplay of 'Pain Killer' or the swaggering groove of 'The Day The Music Dies' or the almost kooky vaudeville stumble of 'Thieves Like Us'. And I'll admit if I have an issue about this record it comes in some of the more vaudevillian touches, more because they're a little more difficult to invest with tension and emotional pathos in comparison with the tones borrowing from Swans or the ragged, arranged beauty of tunes like 'Take It All' or the warped post-punk tension of 'Catch It'. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the unstable drunken vibe of 'Thieves Like Us' in its noisy guitars or how 'Showtime' builds in a terrific sleazy horn line against the trembling groove, but then it pivots with the keyboards and more garish aesthetic and it doesn't quite capture the same atmosphere, at least to me.

But all of this would be for naught if the lyrics didn't connect - and if we're looking for a classic exception to my general feelings surrounding nihilistic art, it is here. Now I've often made the statements that unless there is a greater core of insight or aesthetic flair I have little use for nihilism - it's overplayed, it's often misunderstood and immature, and it's occasionally used as a cheap cop-out by songwriters looking for a cheap filling for their angst without foundation. And yet Iceage gets around this, mostly through the content and lyrics that showcase the most vivid and colourful imagery the band has ever brought, but also significantly through framing. Because make no mistake, nobody is expected to sympathize with our protagonists' vile thoughts and actions, an embrace of the human animal poised to unsettle more than blatantly shock. 'Hurrah' is the most obvious example - highlighting not just murderous impulses but also the loaded hypocritical veneer with how we mask them, and 'Under The Sun' crawls up from gutter to ascend to face God... and then throw him out of the driver's seat with the arrogance that in our piety we know better. And if you're repulsed by any of that... well, you might as well join Iceage in pointing the finger, because as early as 'Pain Killer' they're holding up the mirror to those craven impulses to strip any possibility of romanticism, and while that song and especially 'Plead The Fifth' might have some seductive tension in their wallow in bad taste and excess, you can tell both songs are trying to plug up deeper insecurities, with 'The Day The Music Dies' making that anxious subtext outright text. It's why the romance of any hookup on 'Catch It' is framed as desperate or borderline pathetic, or why 'Thieves Like Us' is an uncomfortable drunken mess - although Iceage does point out the dispassionate enablement of society more than once, with the most direct metaphor coming in the artistic suicide of 'Showtime' where the main actor shoots himself in the head and the crowd asks for their money back. But it's also why there is genuine dramatic pathos on songs like 'Take It All', where when confronted with real self-awareness and purity the protagonist withers, or on the closing title track, which might as well be Iceage's crack at Meat Loaf's 'Two Outta Three Ain't Bad' in its admission of how love just cannot happen.

In short... I'm not sure if there's an easy way to categorize Iceage at this point - most post-punk they've transcended in scope and sound, almost seeming to have more in common with genre-blurring acts like Kyle Craft or Perfume Genius or Algiers than the wiry, distorted nightmares from whence they sprung. And that means this sort of sound can be tough to recommend - hell, given how accessible and structured many of these songs are, this can be tough even for established fans of the group. Nevertheless, this is a more refined and potent release from Iceage that might just have a shot at being among the best of the year, netting a solid 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation. Folks, it's a twisted and noisy listen, but it's definitely worth your time - check this out!

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