Is it still possible for punk to be dangerous? Iggy Pop certainly thinks so. The leathered septuagenarian was effusive in his praise for Danish quartet Iceage during a 2013 radio interview, declaring that they were the only current punk band he could think of “that sounds really dangerous.” But that was nearly a decade ago. Back when Iceage were barely out of their teens, riding high off the success and critical acclaim of records like You’re Nothing (2013) and their bristling debut, New Brigade (2011).
The curious thing about danger, however, is its innate relativity. Ask a room full of strangers what they think punk is and you’ll just as likely end up with a bunch of people telling you what it isn’t: not being a neo-Nazi shithead or an authoritarian bootlicker; not buying vintage London Calling tees from Target or denim jackets adorned with Discharge patches from influencer celebrities. Punk itself might be hard to pin down and define but it’s malleable and it makes money. For some, that’s all that matters.
The point being that something is only dangerous right until the moment it isn’t. When that thing you live for has suddenly been subsumed, commodified, and sold right back to you. So, what happens when that expectation of inherent danger—of white-knuckled adolescent rage, of giving voice to a world desperately teetering out of control, of running a race without a finish line—might just last forever?
Prior to the release of their latest album, Iceage released the standalone 2020 single “Lockdown Blues.” Over plodding drums and lethargic guitars, the band attempted to address the “troubled reality” of the global COVID-19 pandemic and “raise spirit in the face of adversity.”
Ever the world-weary troubadour, frontman and guitarist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s whiskey-soaked vocals rendered this reality in his delirious poetic register, depicting “barren streets” and people “itching for lost touch.” If hope were to remain a possibility then, the answer lay in collective perseverance: “The only way out is through.” From our position now, one year on, in a slightly less-troubled reality, it comes as little surprise that Seek Shelter, the band’s fifth LP and first for new label, Mexican Summer, focuses on the search for a sanctuary outside the self.
Advancing the degenerate grandeur captured so perfectly on 2018’s sprawling Beyondless, Seek Shelter finds the Copenhagen four-piece working towards redemption and salvation by spitting in the face of chaos, turning disintegration and despair into high art in the process.
Album opener, “Shelter Song,” dials up the bands roiling melodrama to dizzying new heights. Against yearning violin and a chanting choir, Rønnenfelt wrestles with desire and emptiness, lacking purpose in our tumultuous period of uncertainty: “We crash and then burn/ Damn it, I’m short of something to live for/ Free me from my thirst/ Gravitate to unlearn.”
Rønnenfelt’s lyrics—often scattered through with oblique metaphors, phraseological appropriation, and a distinct literary verve—conjure up impressions both vivid and abstract, with people becoming “each other’s sedatives” at one end and a “banshee of a phosphene capacity” at the other. On “High Hurt,” the frontman labels avarice “the whitened smile, the all-forgiver,” over Johan Surrballe Wieth’s wailing guitar, before running through the chorus of the popular Christian hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” What at first appears to be an overly cynical move employed by snot-nosed prognosticators, Rønnenfelt quickly twists into an earnest allusion, equating the rush of religiosity with pain and degeneracy.
The elegiac “Love Kills Slowly” makes full use of a gospel choir collective, rendering the ephemerality of passion as a sombre mood piece. “Dear Saint Cecilia,” an ode to the patron saint of music and poetry, pops with bright horn sections that complement bassist Jakob Tvilling Pless and drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen’s furtive rhythms. The jazzy piano-led “Drink Rain” and harmonica-inflected “Gold City” harken back to the band’s youth, sprinkling smoky lounge bar energy in amongst their otherwise lugubrious laments.
Album standout “Vendetta,” meanwhile, feels like a throwback to the exploratory themes of prestige television. Channelling the night drive energy of the “Chosen One Mix” of Alabama 3’s 1997 single, “Woke Up This Morning,” made famous by The Sopranos, Iceage soundtrack sordid tales of street-side drug dens and cut-throat economics with a woozy, lethargic groove. “The Wider Powder Blue” advances this violent theme even further: “Murder can be/ Expressed in a million ways/ It can be a means to kill/ Or a way to teach.” By ruminating on death and meaning, Rønnenfelt suggests that the difference between tragedy and ritual is often just a matter of perspective.
Mystical closer “The Holding Hand” manifests as one of the band’s most captivating compositions, an expansive sonic palette populated by unsettling violins, electronic glitches, and eerie melodies. Pitched as an inchoate invocation to a “limp wristed god,” Rønnenfelt begs for safety, salvation, and shelter once more, a desperate yearning to fill the void of emptiness, however fleeting it may be: “Don’t you know I’m not at a fault in your weakened arms?/ Knocking on your window is a cavalcade/ Pleading for relief, a call to aid.”
What Mr Pop gets right, in articulating his obvious affection for Iceage, is the key to the group’s multi-faceted darkness: “It’s not easy to be that dark. A lot of people who try to express negative energy sort of just flail. They kind of come off like hamsters or something, where the more they try, the sillier it is.” On Seek Shelter, Iceage recognize that darkness, rather than being a purely performative gesture, is most palpable in the presence of light, where the brightness of optimism and aspiration inevitably grants sadness and despair greater depth and resonance. After all, in our current moment, what could be more dangerous, more punk, than hope?
Purchase and stream Seek Shelter here.