Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Iceage Seek Shelter

Mexican Summer
Mexican Summer

Through the first 10 years of their existence, Iceage’s music has had little in the way of salvation. From their seething, noise-blasted origins through to experiments with scorched-earth Americana, Iceage were masters of brooding, end-times sounds. Even as they grew slightly more accessible and classicist on 2014’s Plowing Into The Field Of Love and 2018’s Beyondless, Iceage’s whole aesthetic was still one of arid wastelands — catastrophic visions and mysterious characters and songs that felt like they constantly had smoke coming off of them, whether from a moody cigarette break or a much greater conflagration. They have rituals in their music, and they always seemed cultish, a band using the familiar building blocks of old-school rock traditions but capable of taking them somewhere more enigmatic.

All of which is to say: Iceage have never written something like “Shelter Song.” The opener from the band’s new album Seek Shelter is also the pseudo-title-track and a mission statement for everything that follows. Initially, like much of Seek Shelter, it plays like a slightly modulated extension of the burnt sounds of Beyondless. But then Elias Bender Rønnenfelt is joined by the Lisboa Gospel Collective in a chorus that, just for a moment, might deliver transcendence from the darkness outside and the darkness of Iceage’s music alike. “Come lay here right beside me,” Rønnenfelt sings. “They kick you when you’re up, they knock you when you’re down.”

The accompanying video was a crucial part of the story too, featuring intimate portraits of the band at home in Denmark, surrounded by family and friends. Iceage aren’t the sort of band that has often let us in like that. With that footage and those rousing gospel swells, it seemed Iceage were, like all of us, exiting a dire stretch of years and learning how to reach out their hands as the real world inched closer to something like the shattered remains depicted on Beyondless.

“Shelter Song” isn’t the only way Iceage seemed to be gesturing at a distinctly new chapter for their fifth album. To make Seek Shelter, the quintet — Rønnenfelt, Johan Surrballe Wieth, Dan Kjær Nielse, Jakob Tvilling Pless, and Casper Morilla — decamped to Lisbon to meet up with Sonic Boom, AKA Pete Kember, the former Spacemen 3 member who’s become a go-to collaborator for artists trying to make expansive, lush, vibrant albums, often with a psychedelic bent. Seek Shelter‘s single “Vendetta” suggested maybe Iceage had done the same. A meditation on crime and warped politics, “Vendetta” had the kind of foreboding swagger and steely-eyed rock glower that Iceage, unlike many of their peers, are able to get away with. But that also took place over a festering, clattering psych-rock groove, as if Iceage were injecting the bright colors of Screamadelica into their shadowy sound.

As it turns out, Seek Shelter isn’t a stylistic overhaul extending out from there, nor is it quite as much of a sonic leap as each of the preceding Iceage albums. On the other end of their first decade, the band seem to be settling into a form, perhaps the band they were always meant to be. They haven’t lost a sense of punk ferocity, but they’re also becoming more and more adept at a strain of rock music that can feel like some blend of Nick Cave, Britpop, and the Rolling Stones. There are a lot of classic rock elements coming further to the fore this time around, and some more reflective or atmospheric material, but in many ways Seek Shelter is a more logical successor to Beyondless than the Sonic Boom partnership might’ve initially hinted.

With that being said: Iceage sound great settling into that groove, and they do push against the edges of their preexisting aesthetic here and there across the album. Right after “Shelter Song” comes “High & Hurt,” which begins as a straight-up frayed-edges Iceage rocker before Rønnenfelt starts singing “On a landslide/ Overpowering ‘cross the edges of any brim/ A pariah/ Elbowing as to come forth/ Just let me in” to the melody of the hymn “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” before then going ahead and singing that song’s actual lyrics. It’s almost jarring the first time you hear it, but it’s a harbinger of something Iceage do across Seek Shelter: They begin to make room for the possibility of redemption in their music.

Suddenly, there is an abundance of moments on an Iceage album you could plainly call “pretty.” There’s that chorus in the very beginning, in “Shelter Song,” but then there’s also something like “Love Kills Slowly.” An aqueous, slowburn meditation, “Love Kill Slowly” plays true to its name and comes on patiently and steadily, a chorus emerging like intensifying waves. There are songs that are still rockers, but build to cathartic and infectious refrains — like how “Gold City” goes from a lonesome harmonica to a chorus that tempts not only a singalong but, even, the image of people dancing to an Iceage song. The album’s penultimate track, “The Wider Powder Blue,” pulls off a similar track, worming its way to a chorus where the band kicks into a groove and Rønnenfelt’s drawls are punctuated by bright horn arrangements piercing the song from the background.

Images of violence still abound. As much as “Love Kills Slowly” can feel like an immersive comfort of a song, its message is one of loss, the way yearning eats away at us and how our memories fade after losing someone. The destruction can happen there, on a personal level. Or it happens when Rønnenfelt inhabits a character on “Vendetta,” relishing his sneer around words like “Did you earn to belong here/ This ain’t no place for a sightseer,” before promising “I’mma gonna getcha.” Or as he puts it in “The Wider Powder Blue”: “Murder can be expressed in a million ways.” By the time Iceage reach their conclusion, they’ve arrived at one of the album’s most haunting passages. Closer “The Holding Hand” is built on an eerie foundation of gurgling beats, ghostly vocal effects, and reversed sounds, altogether bringing Iceage back into their apocalyptic comfort zone.

“The Holding Hand” is a claustrophobic and then fuming finale. As a lead single, it suggested Iceage might still be traversing the badlands of Beyondless. As a closer, it suggests that the small victories and solaces glimpsed across Seek Shelter were all for nought. But against those moments of loss and currents of fear, you have the tiny moments of connection that can anchor us. In the jaunty ballad “Drink The Rain,” Rønnenfelt is fine when he’s next to his love. In “Gold City,” whatever two people have suffered can be fixed now that they’re together.

The name of the album, after all, is an imperative. Shelter isn’t necessarily granted or a given, but must be secured — something all too clear as the last few years have left their mark on all of us. In the end, Iceage’s fight to get there is enough of a turning point, enough of a promise. It wouldn’t be an Iceage album without them still wading in the murk, but the moments of release and beauty they let in on Seek Shelter become stunning the more you listen and the more you hang on to them. Right now, on the other side of 10 years, Iceage could still be coming into their own and still evolving. They’ve begun to settle into a sound, and they’re learning how to take it new places. They’ve returned with another rich, textured, addictive album — one that’s also a reminder that, as of yet, this band doesn’t miss. And at the same time, the sound of Iceage opening up leaves you wondering just how bold their next couple moves might be. Seek Shelter isn’t about resolutions, for now. It comes from unnerving and disorienting times, and tries to paint a way out. In its way, Seek Shelter is no less fraught than Iceage’s past albums — but now, they’re beginning to answer the darkness with something else.

Fryd Frydendahl

Seek Shelter is out 5/7 via Mexican Summer. Pre-order it here.

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