By the time New Brigade saw its American release, the title of Iceage’s debut record was already approaching a literal meaning. With its forward-surging tempos, blaring instruments, and impassioned vocals and lyricism — not to mention the support of Copenhagen’s reenergized punk scene — the band carried a switchblade-wielding militancy that easily made them the (then-)teenage “saviors” of punk-rock music. Buzz quickly spread as buzz often does; not only were Iceage chattered about on your garden variety music blog, The New Yorker and the New York Times quickly got in on the act as well. Soon enough, the four Danish musicians were crossing the Atlantic Ocean with rapturous anticipation and a round of shows that have been largely described as no less than heroic.
“Iceage have realized they’ve earned the right to put a little more color in the corners..”
The title bestowed upon them was the product of overzealous press dying to anoint spokespeople for a generation far too fragmented to ever agree upon such things, but it’s hard to deny that New Brigade was a special punk album. It switched tempos on the drop of a dime; its urgency made everything seem important. Songs were oppressively brutal, then unflappably optimistic. (Notice how New Brigade’s title-track darts from a shattered minefield to a cavalry charge.) The name New Brigade was fit well — their record felt, in many ways, like a call to arms. It’s intriguing how, in such short time, Iceage could so seamlessly transition from “You’re Blessed” to You’re Nothing.
Opening track “Ecstasy,” with its soiled droning of guitars, frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt sings in a more sensitive, romantic tone than Iceage fans are used to. He’s also cautiously optimistic about the feeling of happiness serving as something more than a fleeting parting of the clouds. It’s at this exact moment where darkness sets back in and Rønnenfelt is cracking under a spate of pressure that remains unnamed in its source.
In the breakdown of New Brigade late-album track “Eyes,” Rønnenfelt repeats the word “security,” as if he were looking for that feeling to help him through. On You’re Nothing, the repeated words are the ones he’s trying to excise; words like “pressure” and “excess”. Whether it’s trying to invoke a feeling in the listener or turning the lens on himself, there is a clear “you” in You’re Nothing, with the band more contemplative of the “flight or fight” scenario instead of immediately throwing their fists.
With this, the band has given their songs a more full sound; the cacophony of New Brigade not necessarily making way for something less cacophonous, but definitely more encompassing in its cacophony. Coupled with Rønnenfelt’s lyrical themes, the album feels claustrophobic at times, evoking a feeling of being trapped in your own head with nary an escape hatch in sight. Just like on opener “Ecstasy,” the band shows their musical growth in short bursts, with the piano balladry fused in “Morals” and the hopeful guitar line of penultimate track “Awake,” But all three of those songs quickly remind you of what band you’re listening to, and you’re confronted with the feral brutality of the band in a hurry. Such nuanced songwriting was found in glints on New Brigade, but that album was more focused on that aforementioned sense of urgency. Here, Iceage have realized they’ve earned the right to put a little more color in the corners.
In the one-and-three-quarter minutes of the closer, the band works in their (excellent) default mode, fast and hard, with the album’s title track feeling partly like a taunt and partly like pep talk, which are what quite a few taunts are described as. Maybe it’s Rønnenfelt taunting himself as a means to improve not only as a person, but as an artist. Perhaps negativity is what fuels Iceage, giving them the energy and force to deliver an album even darker than its bleak predecessor. Whatever their methods, Iceage have proven themselves as one of the more impressive young punk bands around, creating a body of work that make you think past how hard the songs will make you punch someone in a mosh pit.
Iceage’s You’re Nothing is out now via Matador. Stream it at Pitchfork.