The gap between albums for Salt Lake City-based Iceburn is now old enough to drink alcohol, but is the wait worth it for fans of the long-running experimental rock/metal act? Thankfully, the excellent Asclepius, out now via Southern Lord, answers that in the form of an emphatic, “hell yes!” The album is the sound of immensely talented people rediscovering the joy of creating with friends and bonding over what brought them together all those years ago. Asclepius is jazzy, elegant, propulsive, heavy, trippy, and—most of all—a damn blast.
The music really hits at what Iceburn does best—creating music that somehow feels ancient, that speaks to the soul, with compositions that feel like you’re hearing old, tribal leaders conveying truths through music. Yet, Iceburn’s ability to bring so many different styles together in a way that feels so elegant and smooth helps make the record sound modern, experimental, and progressive. Vocalist and guitarist Gentry Densley delves into the album’s inspirations:
“The seeds for these songs have been around with us for a long time now, we’ve been carrying them in our pockets. The Greek rembetika [ancient folk] music was something that came on my radar in the ’90s, but it was only in recent years that I thought, ‘what if we took that melody and slowed it way down like a Black Sabbath riff, and then harmonized it from a different key?’ And it turned out pretty killer. One thing we love to do is take a theme and see what we can do with it. With ‘Healing the Ouroboros,’ we take something that could be pretty standard and shift it over the barline, so it kind of turns in on itself, the snake it is named after. Then, we modulate it and truncate it, improvise over it, and then distill down and back to its full form.”
“With ‘Dahlia Rides the Firebird’ the theme manipulated texturally,” Densley adds. “It’s slowed and sped up, and ideas are super-imposed in a variety of ways, and we have improvised parts where we plan our transitions to and from, but don’t really ever play it the same way twice. Essentially, theme and variation is what it is all about, and our lives, well basically every human life is a variation on a theme. It’s best to look for the beauty in those variations and embrace the richness that our contrasts and differences bring.”
The record is named after the Greek god of medicine, and I get the sense that healing played a big part into the record’s themes and energies. Members of Iceburn even have degrees in ancient Greek disciplines, which may be why I get the feeling that these songs are calling back to ancient truths, wisdom passed through the generations. So, what did the band want to talk about with these songs?
“As with any philosophy or poetry, we want people to interpret things in their own way and from their own life and experience,” Densley says. “The Asclepius idea came from a road trip [drummer Joseph] Chubba [Smith] and I did to play an Iceburn set at a festival. We talked about his staff and how in some versions of the myth, the snake sticks his tongue in Asclepius’ ear and imparts to him secret knowledge, of healing, and even resurrection. We thought since we were resurrecting the band, that would be a cool thing to incorporate. Chubba was also the one who had the idea for Hephaestus, of us being like blacksmiths working with fire and heavy metals, almost 30 years ago now.”
“I have always been obsessed with the band Earth, and especially the tune ‘Ouroboros is Broken’,” he continues. “Thinking about that title, and about breaking those destructive, self-devouring cycles, I came to realize that it’s not enough to break a cycle, because it will just snap back the other direction, ultimately there has to be some healing there. ‘Dahlia Rides the Firebird’ is still a bit of a mystery, even to me, what it’s really about. If we had a couple hours, maybe I could pin down all that went into it, but I kind of want it to remain an enigma. We recorded other songs as well in this session, but wanted this first outing to be bold and simple as well as balanced. So, we chose these pieces to be the two sides on one LP, so we have the snake side and the flower side, the anima and the animus, each transcending, the ouroboros and the dahlia.”
Listen to Asclepius below, and pick up a copy on vinyl here.
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Images courtesy of Iceburn. Featured image credit: Josh Scheuerman.