In his 1979 work La distinction: Critique sociale du jugement (translated into English in 1984 as Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste), French sociologist Pierre Bordieu argued that “nothing more clearly affirms one’s ‘class’, nothing more infallibly classifies, than tastes in music.”
Based on the range of sounds across their four previous albums, it’s clear beyond all doubt that Iceage – Copenhagen’s best rock band – have fantastic taste. Though the albums have been different each time, the connecting thread is that they have all been utterly consistent in their intensity. Throughout their career, which began when they were teenagers, Iceage have showcased influences from, and draw justified comparison to, sounds ranging from scratchy black metal to The Pogues’ sozzled swagger; from Tom Waits washed-out romanticism to The Replacements’ grim and gritty urban realism; and from Jacques Brel to the Rolling Stones to The Velvet Underground and beyond.
Despite the difference and diversity in sound from album to album, Iceage – comprised of singer/primary songwriter Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, Johan Surrballe Wieth on guitar, Jakob Tvilling Pless on bass, Dan Kjær Nielsen on drums and new recruit Casper Morilla Fernandez on guitar – have always seemed to be taking more of a risk with each passing record. Their biggest risk – and biggest payoff to date – was “The Lord’s Favorite”, from 2014’s Plowing into the Field of Love, which traded in the brutal punk of old for a gutsy, mind-boggling folk-punk sound that paved the way for an endless future of experimentation.
And so to Seek Shelter, produced in collaboration with Spacemen 3 legend Pete Kember (Sonic Boom to his mother), and regular producer Nis Bysted. Its opener, “Shelter Song”, is a signal of intent, and a sign of just how far they’ve come. It’s a huge, sprawling Britpop epic that evokes The Verve, Oasis and even U2 in its scope and power. There are walls of guitars, layers of backing vocals, thunderous percussive blasts.
Things appear to be returning to normal on “High & Hurt”, which is powered by a rubbery rhythm built around a propulsive bass line. Rønnenfelt’s throat-shredding vocals and ornate, poetic lyrics – always a cornerstone of the band’s aesthetic vision – are brought to the fore here, before they take a more subdued role on “Love Kills Slowly”, a post-Nick Cave murder ballad of exquisite quality.
The tribal drum machine intro of “Vendetta” ends up giving way to a slippery Primal Scream groove in one of the most surprising artistic choices on the record. The Jacques Brel homage “Drink Rain” is another highlight – and another surprise – with its earnest, yearning vocals and lush, spongy instrumentation. The following pair, “Gold City” and “Dear Saint Cecilia” are two of the most accessible tracks on the album, both crammed full of hooks and highlights and stardust.
However, it’s in the closing pair that we truly hear the perfection Iceage have been striving for: “The Wider Powder Blue” and “The Holding Hand” are undoubtedly two of the finest tracks the band have ever released. The latter – let’s start with the better of the selections – manages to straddle the line between inviting and sinister, and it does so on the back of a lurching rhythm while lying on a bed of splintered guitar shards. “The Wider Powder Blue” is a monumental, bluesy banger that alternates between heavy, heavy choruses and delicate, restrained verses, ending in a truly euphoric crescendo of riffage.
The scary thing about Iceage is that they keep getting better, and show no signs of taking a backwards step. Their trajectory, if it had been plotted on a graph, would be a single vertical line pointing directly to the stars. Iceage aren’t household names (thankfully), nor are they being heralded as the saviours of punk (thankfully), but both accolades would be beyond deserved. If there were any justice in the world, Iceage would be afforded the same attention that they’ve seen bestowed on lesser bands for the better part of thirteen years, and they would be appreciated for the length, breadth and insane quality of their back catalogue. As it is, they’re not – but if there’s anything Pierre Bordieu’s writings tell us, it’s that there’s no accounting for taste.