Zen Brigade:
Iceage Connect the Dots Between Warsaw and Copenhagen

“When sung in Danish, it almost sounds as if you’re yelling at someone,” Iceage guitarist Johan Wieth offers. Of course hardcore punk tends to entail a lot of yelling, although in the case of Iceage it sounds more like ominous proclamation. While cracking the US market hardly seems a priority, English is a common language across the EU as well as the rock community and has therefore become the Copenhagen quartet’s chosen vehicle. “The distance that comes from writing in another language becomes somewhat of a benefit,” Wieth conjectures. “Yes, we speak to each other in Danish,” he adds with a laugh.

Those benefits may come bundled with their own set of complications, but few would dispute Iceage’s status as one of the most provocative bands to shake up the hardcore scene in years. Except maybe Iceage. “We never thought of ourselves as a hardcore band,” Wieth avers, without attempting to negate his group’s incubation in the Copenhagen DIY scene. To these ears the quartet leverages the ferocity of hardcore punk as a springboard for something more ambitious and far-reaching, and Wieth seems to react favorably to my comparisons to the Ex, Husker Du, and Fucked Up – all bands with similarly expansive missions. “As a band we’ve never thought about genres or labels. We know what we want to sound like, which can be hard to put into words.”

Iceage earned international acclaim in 2011 for its relentless debut New Brigade, which already aimed beyond pure headbanger thrash and drew comparisons to the genre’s earliest trailblazers. Still, this year’s You’re Nothing feels like a significant leap forward in terms of dynamic range and its harnessing of raw energy. According to Wieth, however, this has more to do with the band’s natural evolution than a lavish budget or a marathon studio ordeal. The recording sessions for You’re Nothing ran only a bit longer than those for New Brigade, but a key difference was that Iceage sequestered themselves on the island of Mon, off the Denmark coast, “so we didn’t go back to our regular lives after a 10-to-5 day.” Perhaps setting himself up as the Johnny Marr of the group Wieth adds about the live/studio dichotomy, “We think of them as very different things but for myself, I really enjoy the recording process.”

It’s hardly surprising that Iceage is showing growth spurts, given that most of its members are barely in their twenties. The band existed in its current configuration for two or three years before they first recorded in 2010, but the four Danes have been friends since ages 13-14, playing in various permutations in the Copenhagen hardcore scene. A band description wouldn’t be complete without reference to Iceage’s all-important rhythm section: Dan Kjær Nielsen’s jackhammer drumming and the Jakob Pless’s aggressive basslines that introduce tracks like “Everything Drifts” in classic hardcore fashion.

Given their pigeonholing, the track “Morals” – which sits at the center of You’re Nothing – has been met with a degree of fascination. It’s been portrayed as a ballad (not true, although its verses do slow the pace of a pummeling album) and milks the grandeur of some well-placed piano chords. Wieth reveals the song “is more stripped down live. I don’t see why people have such a reaction to a few notes on a piano.” It also conveniently disregards the atmospherics and industrial dance beats of vocalist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s side project Var. Does this exploration mean they’re likely to venture into virtuoso territory, typically anathema to hardcore fans? “No, not at all,” Wieth counters. “Just because we have ambitions or have evolved doesn’t mean we’ve gotten any more complicated. I don’t think any of us think of music in that way, we don’t have a problem with it.”

Although we’re not getting the English translations of songs sung in another tongue back home, New Brigade’s “Rodfæstet,” is a rare case of Iceage staying in their mother language. “Its meaning in Danish is very hard to translate.  One word might be ‘rooted,’ but that doesn’t really give justice to the word in Danish.  That’s why we didn’t translate it.  Not being the vocalist, I can’t comment too directly on that.” The ESL distinction is rarely noticeable but yields a few endearing tidbits, such as when Ronnenfelt bemoans “no tangible worth” on “Wounded Hearts,” pronouncing the middle word with a hard “g.”

The band has already been through a parade of US labels. Debut New Brigade originally saw stateside release on Dais (a boutique imprint known for limited pressings of abrasive acts like Genesis P-Orridge and early Cold Cave) before making a splash on the higher-profile but still quite DIY label What’s Your Rupture? “We were initially going to release this album in the US with another label, whose name isn’t worth mentioning now, but we came into some disagreements at the mastering process,” says Wieth. Once they returned to playing the field, “Matador was the most compelling option, as they made no push in the creative process. They didn’t look for a say in the artwork, the sound, anything…they only seem interested in the music.” They’ve found more stability in their home country, where they’ve worked from the start with “an independent label in Denmark run by friends,” starting with a six-song seven inch, all the tracks of which were re-recorded for New Brigade.

Neither of Iceage’s albums crack the 30-minute mark and their live sets are similarly brief, although given the level of fury few are likely to complain about being shortchanged. And don’t expect either to expand along with the discography. “The length of our live shows and recordings was very conscious on our part,” Wieth explains. “I mean, we don’t need any more time to say what we have to say.”

Iceage have already developed a reputation as a difficult interview, harboring little patience for questions they perceive as inane or beside-the-point. However I found Wieth to be gracious, open to conversation and only minimally hamstrung by language barrier. Nonetheless, vague yet persistent accusations of fascism have caused members to become more guarded in interviews. It’s a “when did you stop beating your wife?” situation in which addressing the innuendo only breathes new life into the topic. Like any adrenaline-fueled thrash band Iceage attracts a contingent of violent knuckleheads to their shows. But aside from a foolish youthful misstep of once selling Iceage-customized knives at the merch table, any evidence tying the band to such sympathies is specious at best. And they face at least a subliminal handicap in the naturally severe tone of their Danish accents and their Aryan good looks.

Perhaps Iceage can take solace in the company they keep. Their sound has always reminded me of the harsher pre-Joy Division band Warsaw, whose posters and cover art drew similar accusations and offered a more substantial fact pattern. And Fucked Up’s imagery actively courted right-wing controversy in its early days as part of a broader media-tweaking disinformation campaign.

A parsing of You’re Nothing’s lyric sheet reveals more universal themes of alienation – sometimes with apparent connections to romantic estrangement – delivered in brief, elliptical phrases and with occasional reference to disintegration and dead souls (paging Mr. Curtis….) Make what you will of these themes, but for me the enduring image comes from the two-chord bloodletting that comprises the title track and album’s parting shot. I’m reminded of the pre-Zen Arcade Husker Du (at the point Robert Christgau christened them “hate Buddhas”) wailing “What do I want? What’ll make me happy? Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!” It’s a valid – hopefully transitory – emotion, and Messrs. Mould, Hart and Norton quickly proved they had more in mind. The maturing, ambitious Danes of Iceage seem to as well.

Photo by Kristian Embdal.