Better Than: drinking 100 Euro wine
A wrinkled piece of blue paper lay wadded on the Bowery Ballroom stage in front of Iceage guitarist Johan Surrballe Wieth’s monitor, the setlist scrawled in the same handwriting that adorns the cover of the band’s third studio album, Plowing Into the Field of Love. The fifth line down simply said “Country;” as shorthand for rockabilly-inflected lead single “The Lord’s Favorite” it also said a lot about the kind of songwriting Iceage explores on their latest LP.
It’s a well-executed offering of 12 smartly-imagined songs, with all the snarl and sneer that made the Copenhagen quartet buzzworthy in 2011, when they released debut album New Brigade. Back then, they were a lot easier to pin to a single genre, as their nihilistic ethos and raw punk energy bore all the markings of the Scandanavian hardcore scene from which they had emerged. With last year’s You’re Nothing marking their first release for Matador, Iceage took on a greater breadth of compositional elements, and that’s a trend that’s continued on Plowing Into the Field of Love, to almost unexpected extremes–there are pianos, horns, mandolin, and strings woven through the dissonant guitars and dogged drums. Iceage are a band intent on creating art, and with this latest record, they’ve come closer than ever before.
As elaborate as the arrangements on Plowing have gotten, Iceage remain a young band whose sound is still evolving, and they haven’t quite figured how to translate those complexities into their live set. For Sunday night’s show, it was just the four of them–Wieth on guitar, Dan Kjær Nielsen behind the kit, and Jakob Tvilling Pless on bass–with Elias Bender Rønnenfelt sans guitar focusing on vocals alone. That’s a move that makes sense, considering that for the first time ever, vocals are front and center on this record rather than buried and atonal in a wall of punchy drone. Rønnenfelt delivered each syllable by wrenching it from the entirety of his body, leaning out over the audience to grunt between verses on “How Many” or moan lines like “And when I fall/ I’ll bring it all/ Down here with me/ Soaked in Alcohol” from “Abundant Living,” perhaps the rowdiest number of the night.
Overall, though, the set was subdued, most songs starting out with crashing, militaristic drums, carried along on rumbling, stormy basslines. “Forever” was a highlight, mostly for its imploring repetition of “I’ll lose myself forever,” Rønnenfelt’s normally deadpan delivery actually reaching an emotional crescendo, at least comparatively speaking. For the most part, Rønnenfelt stuck to his usual shtick: roaming the stage like a wild animal, wrapping himself in his microphone cable, pointing slackened limbs straight at the audience. An elusive vulnerability resurfaced when the band closed with the album’s title track, a harrowing recollection of Rønnenfelt’s destitution as he penned lyrics in Berlin this past winter.
In just under 40 minutes, Iceage breezed through nine new songs, sadly forgoing the waltzy “Stay” and the spirited, urgent “Simony,” before exiting the stage with no encore. It’s only the third stop on their tour, so it might be that they’re still settling into the material, figuring out how they want to present it, and gauging audience reaction (for what it’s worth, they begged for more songs even as the lights came up). As a whole, the band seemed a bit detached from it all, and it’s kind of a shame when one imagines what might’ve been; if they’re not even going to bother to revisit the old stuff, why not give the new songs the treatment they deserve? It’s not hard to enlist a horn ensemble or a violinist or incorporate keyboards on a tour or even a few select dates when you have backing from a label like Matador, especially when the tracks themselves have already been arranged that way on the LP. These songs hinge on the intricate layers from which they’re built, and yet there was no attempt to incorporate these dynamic elements into the live show. Had they come into play, the show would have been transcendent no matter how succinct.
There’s also the possibility that Iceage are saving some energy for tonight, when they play tiny Bushwick goth dive The Acheron with Uniform. There certainly won’t be a baby grand on stage, but it’s likely to be a little more lawless, as their under-the-radar DIY gigs in the past have been. Having seen more than a few of those, it’s really quite strange to lament a lack of orchestral flourish at the Bowery show. But then, with Plowing Into the Field of Love, Iceage seem intent on surprising us all.
Random Notebook Dump: Opener Helm is like Mas Ysa if Mas Ysa switched from soundtracking teen prom coms to horror films.
Overheard: “He dresses kind of weird but he’s such a perfect specimen.” — an admirer of Rønnenfelt’s model-gorgeous countenance who’s maybe never heard of “normcore”?
Overheard II: “That was too short. I didn’t want to have to pay to go tomorrow, too.” — a normal human who somehow telepathically tapped into what everyone else was thinking
On My Fingers
Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled
The Lord’s Favorite
Let It Vanish
Plowing Into The Field of Love