Used to be, bands would reflect their surroundings. Scenes had sounds. Nowadays, bands are raised not in the too-small worlds of local communities, but in the infinitely expansive universe of the Internet.
And so, like a reverse Big Bang, distinct styles that were once provincial to the point of yielding inbred nonsense have gradually come back to their center. For punk rock and associated loud sounds, this means a reaction against the micro-genre and a cumulative wealth of influences. Black-metal, punk and noise acts, once cliquish to the point of violence, now rub elbows, share bills and are all the better for it.
Based in Copenhagen, Denmark and explosive in its newness, Iceage bleeds influences but succeeds in generating an exciting punk perspective. Grounded in the chilly darkness that is common among Scandinavian groups, Iceage represents some of the best qualities of aggressive music. The young quartet melds the gloomy distance often associated with Joy Division and The Fall with the runaway immediacy of American hardcore.
"I don't like punk rock. I like certain punk bands," says vocalist and guitarist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt. Speaking quietly, in almost-broken English with a deep voice that belies his youth, he continues. "I like classical music, and I like noise music and folk music. It's not so much about the style of playing, but the content of the music."
Though the band's first EP came out in 2009, Iceage had existed in various incarnations three years prior, when the members were all around the age of 13. "We were just searching and playing a few shows with punk bands," says Rønnenfelt. "It was pretty noisy; we couldn't really figure out how to write songs or play them together."
Iceage's 2011 full-length, New Brigade, is full of sloppy, tumbling drum fills and memorable refrains. While the band's use of quasi-pagan imagery is often grim, the near-joyous bounce of songs like "Broken Bone" and "You're Blessed" is undeniable. Tuning and tightness are forsaken; it's excusable, thanks to the thrilling sense of frenetic energy. Accounts of live Iceage shows attest to the group's all-business approach to creating a chaotic space wherever they go—20 minutes or less, thanks, goodbye.
It seems too good to be true. It may be.
"Oh," says Rønnenfelt dryly, "you're talking about the fascist accusations."
Yes, there is the matter of the fascist accusations.
The issue stems from two sources. There's the video for the single "New Brigade," in which bandmembers wear masks that obscure all facial features, save for the eyes, and come to points at the top. They also bear torches.
The other item of contention is a Rønnenfelt-made zine: a collection of Raymond Pettibon-esque illustrations depicting more Klan-esque characters, an Iron Cross here or there and a particularly striking sketch of what appears to be a conflict between cross-wielding Christians and men sporting Muslim garb and rifles. In the background, a church burns. It's provocative and totally devoid of moral didacticism. It's just what it is. At least, that's how Rønnenfelt intends it to be. He sounds tired of defending his band from the scrutiny his artistic choices have wrought.
"People, when they see certain imagery, it sets off an alarm inside their heads, and they can't look past the image and see what's actually there… It's just a music video. It's just us having two days to do a music video and running up with masks… and blowing up stuff, you know?"
The zine, says Rønnenfelt, "is not something that should be analyzed too much. That zine was pretty much me being bored at school, sitting and drawing in class, and going to the photocopy machine and copying it and releasing it. It was just drawing collages of things I had around: newspapers, or things I was drawn to. Showing a picture of a race war is not the same thing as endorsing it. If people analyze the stuff, they should [also] analyze the lyrics."
In past interviews—particularly with the oft-hysterical British rock press—the band has emphatically and repeatedly disavowed any fascist or racist tendencies. The members have also insisted that their work is apolitical. Throughout his conversation with Flagpole, Rønnenfelt's answers are often preceded by what might be his artistic mantra: "I don't know."
It's not an artist's job to define his or her work—that would lie with the audience (or, um, Flagpole). But whether this is Rønnenfelt's attempt to quell the firestorm of his invention or a genuine reluctance to qualify his own work, is unclear.
If the former is true, it's a shame. The imagery in question might well be a comment on Islamophobia in Iceage's native region, but if that's the case, the band is entirely unwilling to enter a submission into that dialogue. If it's the latter, that's fine as well, although a bit greenhorn.
At best, it's a submission into punk's rich shock-tactic history. At worst, it's trolling. But for all its complexity and obfuscation, Iceage has succeeded in being a truly interesting punk band in the 21st century, and the rarity of that sort of occurrence can be assessed with a certain degree of objectivity.