Iceage approach each new sonic evolution with relentlessness and bloodshot eyes—the same kind of painstaking attention to detail that turns their lyrics into immersive worlds unto themselves. And funnily enough, Iceage are pretty great at churning out songs about cold-blooded relentlessness, too.
The Copenhagen band’s seminal debut, New Brigade, turned 10 this year, and ever since then, they’ve consistently broken the mold cast by their previous album. New Brigade smoldered with manic rhythms and called upon post-punk, no-wave and hardcore tones without fitting neatly into any one category. By some stroke of wizardry, its brisk follow-up You’re Nothing sounded both more and less polished than its predecessor, but most notably, it was a whole new frontier in terms of vision and songcraft. Then came Plowing Into the Field of Love just a year later, which was marked by languorous tracks, plus new sonic profiles ranging from country-punk to gothic crooner pop. After operating in different veins of punk for three consecutive albums, the band arrived with their most conventional rock album four years later, 2018’s Beyondless. Playing around with various blues-rock configurations, they managed to make their most accessible album yet without sacrificing Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s signature stuporous allure.
A successful, talented band like Iceage could’ve easily concocted a mindless collection of Stones-y stompers—after all, it’s a style that never falls out of fashion. But to do something so careless would be the antithesis of everything Iceage have released over the past decade. For Iceage to choose anything but tireless reinvention would be a stab wound to the chest, best soundtracked by one of their own towering songs about poetic death. But thankfully, on their fifth album Seek Shelter, their crazed ambitious streak continues.
To frame some of the changes on their new album, this was the longest period of time they’ve ever spent working on a record, and they were joined by an additional guitarist, Casper Morilla Fernandez. But most tellingly, they recruited Spaceman 3’s Peter Kember (aka Sonic Boom) as producer, and it’s no surprise the result is rather expansive. You can feel the weight of this album the moment it begins—the fierce, off-kilter rumble that opens “Shelter Song’’ is nothing if not goosebump-inducing. Part ferocious guitar jangle, part foggy, solemn bustle recalling the lead-up to battle, this opening sequence is a sign of the multi-dimensional sounds to come. Then come Rønnenfelt’s steady, rich pipes and the band’s stadium-sized chorus, recalling a classic Verve singalong and a blues-gospel spiritual, with choir vocals, strings and twangy riffs filling out the track. It’s the first Iceage song with this kind of sing-to-the-rafters, arms-around-shoulders quality.
“High & Hurt’’ completes the opening one-two punch with more surprises—namely, synth whirring and a funky bassline. Rounded out with hand drums and scratchy, treble-forward guitar, they opt for another song of sweeping proportions and Primal Scream-esque swagger. Without a doubt, the most surprising song on the tracklist is “Drink Rain,” which sounds like something you’d hear from the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack, much less an intense, artful rock band. With Spanish-style guitar and cocktail hour piano flutters, it evokes a happy-go-lucky stroll, and if you can stomach the initial shock that this is an Iceage song (albeit one they probably won’t perform live), there’s a good chance you’ll fall for Rønnenfelt’s pretty, refined delivery.
On Seek Shelter, Rønnenfelt is at his most abstract. Though he has a habit of evocative yet elusive lyricism, this LP feels more deliberately impressionistic than others. The songs are slippery and ephemeral, which ties in well with the record’s themes of formless discontent and the search for greater meaning. He scatters references to vague catastrophes, both large and small in scale, and in turn, illustrates what life is like when humanity’s darkest urges take over: Those with a moral compass are forced to cling to loved ones, the present moment and some higher purpose, while cynical evil-doers run rampant, poisoning the fabric of society. To live in these circumstances is to live in a haze, questioning what one is meant to deduce from a world so needlessly cruel.
“The Holding Hand” cries out for mercy from a “limp-wristed god,” while “The Wider Powder Blue” reads like a solemn resignation at the abysmal state of things (“I heed the call / that of a guiding hand / The one who understands / that blood needs flow free”). “Shelter Song” centers on a subject who feels more distress from their lack of purpose than the surrounding cataclysm (“Damn it, I’m short of something to live for / Free me from my thirst”), highlighting our physical resilience, but perhaps the limits of our sheer will. It’s no wonder then that this record cloaks itself in religious imagery, lending reprieve via divine glory to these dismal scenes. Though not without its pleas for perseverance, it’s a rather brooding album, but one that captures the disorienting feeling of having your motivations relentlessly tested.
Much more tragedy than comedy, the album gets its power from Iceage’s sheer emotional intensity and theatricality. Visuals for “The Holding Hand’’ and “Vendetta” depict a bloodied hand, a scratched mirror, a devil dressed as a matador, a pomegranate violently gored by a sword and a portly, gun-toting scoundrel eating an apple with a knife—it’s all very ominous, but it wouldn’t be an Iceage album without striking imagery that raises the stakes.
“Vendetta” and “Dear Saint Cecilia” continue their colossal rock streak, with the former leaning into a Happy Mondays-like pulse, while retaining Rønnenfelt’s wonderfully decrepit descriptors, and the latter sounding like beloved veterans showing off their blues-rock chops to tens of thousands. Though lyrics are their strong suit, strangely enough, one of the album’s most memorable moments is the tuneful succession of “ba-ba-ba’s” on “Vendetta,” a stroke of pop magic over horns and guitars masquerading as horns.
On its face, the album may read like a mere continuation of the brass-laden rock ’n‘ roll of Beyondless, which is true to a certain extent, but repeated listens reveal more textures and ambition of scale than its predecessor. It seems like they wanted to turn heads with this LP, given that nearly every intro in the album’s first half sounds like anyone but Iceage, from electronic throbs to dainty hues. Though short on outright punk moments, the record also taps into the stately leisure of Plowing Into the Field of Love with “Gold City” and “Love Kills Slowly.” Seek Shelter is ultimately less effective in its catchiness and sheer force, considering its occasionally clunky sequences, but Iceage attempting to write songs of unprecedented magnitude this far into their career is admirable.
The album’s greatest triumph is its finale, “The Holding Hand,” which plays to their tension-building strengths. Perhaps unknowingly, its creepy metronome-like intro channels the spirit of New Brigade’s opening salvo. Against foreboding chimes, Ronnenfelt’s voice echoes dramatically, simulating a godlike effect as the narrator describes their utter powerlessness before a wretched backdrop. The unhurried, roomy song is marked by forceful guitar pounds and Ronnenfelt’s gracefully drawn-out vocals, giving the impression of a near-implosion. Once the appeals for solace directed at that deity deemed “limp-wristed” ring out, strings swell and adrenaline rushes, and the track ends in allegorical fashion: The subject desperately reaches out for a life-saving hand, and the curtain closes before we learn their fate. It’s almost foolishly over the top. It’s painfully poignant. It’s delightfully disheveled. It’s irresistible in its mystical doom. And we’d expect nothing less from Iceage.
Lizzie Manno is a music writer, Coldplay apologist, bread lover and Spongebob memer. She’s a former Paste editor, with bylines at Billboard and Cleveland Scene. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno