On their new album, “You’re Nothing” (Matador Records), Iceage – the primary reason American music fans are even aware of Copenhagen’s burgeoning punk scene – prove they’re a band with staying power. The group of four friends, Elias Bender Rønnenfelt (vocals/guitar), Johan Wieth (guitar), Jakob Tvilling Pless (bass), and Dan Kjær Nielsen (drums), rose to blogosphere prominence with their thrilling 2011 debut, “New Brigade,” a record that was ravenously lapped up by audiophiles eager for anything approaching the unrehearsed fury and anarchic energy of early punk rock. Two years later they’ve produced a record that feels just as vital and alive as the band’s earlier work, but also indicates a blossoming musical maturity.
Second albums are tricky things, especially when bands get caught up in the expectations that come with early acclaim. Countless groups have been done in by misguided attempts to fill out their sound or force a more “mature” aesthetic, often resulting in a loss of what made them stand out in the first place. This is not the case with “You’re Nothing,” which features a band just as energetic as before but with a notably expanded musical palette – one less concerned with the punk influences that drove things the first time around. “It’s broader now than it was two years ago,” said Wieth in a recent interview with ARTINFO. “We had some boundaries that were crushed. There are less rules, I think, in making music.”
They continue to find success, it seems, because they ignore the hype that surrounds them. “I don’t think we reacted much to pressure from the outside,” said Nielsen. A sentiment as confident as that, one echoed by each of Nielsen’s bandmates, is what one might expect to hear from a group of kids who’ve already put out two critically-acclaimed albums before they’ve reached their mid-20s.
“We did the best we could and it came out perfect for us, I think,” said Wieth. Their assuredness in their work helped them decide which label to go with for this record. “I think with Matador, or what we hope, they don’t see potential, they just see what is there,” the guitarist said later.
With 12 songs coming in (in true punk tradition) just short of a half-hour, the band doesn’t turn their backs on the abrasive scrawl of their earliest material. Instead they seem to have learned to control it, pushing it in new emotional directions. Youthful nihilism and disgust with society still rule the day on “You’re Nothing,” but other sources of anger and confusion are highlighted, like personal relationships on the first single, “Coalition.” And occasionally, as on album standout “Morals,” they slow things down and employ a piano, an instrument that doesn’t exactly scream punk. It’s a testament to the quartet’s skill and fearlessness that it feels so right. “I don’t think too much about what we are,” said Rønnenfelt. “We just try to make what comes natural.”
The change doesn’t just come through on the new record – it’s also clear in Iceage’s live set. When they first played New York two summers ago, the band seemed timid at times, only offering glimpses of what caused sweating masses of fans to pack into cramped venues like Brooklyn’s 285 Kent. On their most recent trip through town, though, it was a decidedly different story. A few weeks ago during a show at Home Sweet Home, a bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the band seemed confident (or perhaps aloof) and unphased by the cool kid crowd that filled the space. The passive audience could barely muster a sway during the first few songs, but Rønnenfelt (who seemed unable to resist hanging from a pipe that runs across the ceiling) was undeterred, tearing through number after number with focus, full command, and aggressive force.
“We’ve always been pretty shaky with our live performance,” he said. “Some nights we don’t play together. We’re not all there. We sound like shit. Some days we are extremely great. I think the really shitty shows are getting fewer.”
“Two years ago,” Wieth added, “we wouldn’t be in control [if] the night was going… really shitty. I think now we are more in control.”
It’s easy to assume, based on interviews or live shows, that Iceage doesn’t fully appreciate the success they’ve attained at such a young age. This may or may not be true, but they definitely don’t take it for granted either, and the strides they’ve made these past two years prove that. As dour and disaffected as they may seem on stage, they are having fun and there is clear passion in their songs. “We want people to come to our shows and listen to our music,” said Rønnenfelt. “We didn’t start this band to hide from anything.”
If and when that feeling fades, we’ll all know. “If the reason changes, if it changes from us doing it because we love doing it with each other, to doing it out of necessity, there’s just no point anymore,” said Wieth.
Until then, let’s just be glad that there’s at least one punk band out there that still matters.