Album Review: Iceage – Seek Shelter

[Mexican Summer; 2021]

It’s fascinating to chronicle Nordic interpretations of modern punk rock. Most noteworthy bands that originated with aural punk aesthetics, such as The Hives, Mando Diao or Turbonegro, cloaked themselves in an amalgamation of clichés and parodies thereof. The Hives took on 60s beat and garage culture, refashioning The Who-esque riffs, while Turbonegro went for a weird, decidedly un-PC satire of leather rock culture as crypto-fascist and unambiguously gay. Mando Diao took up The Jam’s working class attitude and reshaped it according to semantics of ego and iconography as seen by Oasis a decade prior. And then, all those acts drifted. Turbonegro went full 70s hard rock, The Hives embraced mainstream pop, and Mando Diao – caught between pastoral folk and urban synthesizers – entered a midlife crisis they never managed to shrug off. This same developmental arc can be extended to harder Nordic punk bands, such as Hellacopters and Refused/The (International) Noise Conspiracy. Nordic punk, it seems, is inevitably drawn towards the clichés it mocks and cannibalizes, until only the old husk of rock and roll posture remains.

Iceage have so far managed to evade this road to ruin. With their first two albums, they introduced themselves as no-bullshit hardcore kids in the tradition of fellow Danes and classic punks The Sods. After that, the band expanded into a very unique – and very charismatic – blend of post-punk that fused folklore and minimalism in an almost gothic fashion. Utilizing horn sections, pianos and violins, the group veered into a European, almost vaudevillian interpretation of the genre, ripe with performative theatrics and literary allusions, leading to comparisons with Nick Cave or the late Einstürzende Neubauten. Ultimately, this transformed the quartet into one of the most exciting and renowned acts of the Zoomer generation, both fashionable boyband (vocalist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt has already be canonized as a sex symbol) and violently physical hardcore outfit, which separated them from the aforementioned acts.

To say Seek Shelter was hotly anticipated would be an underestimation, seeing how its predecessor, Beyondless, was their best album to date. Yet its first glimpses made for a slightly schizophrenic impression. While lead single “The Holding Hand” was an angular five and a half minute art-punk track that included disturbing xylophones, ghostly echoes and a rousing finale, the follow up “Vendetta” was an all out radio friendly rock song with disco grooves. As attuned as the band is to genre hopping, it did suggest the coming album could venture further into divergent territories than the already very inspired predecessor.

Now, given that 2021 is marking the big return of (mostly British) post-punk bands into the mainstream consciousness, it’s not only interesting that Seek Shelter happens to be as stylistically varied as its singles suggest, but also that it almost totally abandons the post-punk genre Iceage had mastered. In fact, it feels like a conscious effort to fully tumble into the drunken rock’n’roll sound of latter The Clash – anthemic bombast and all. Nowhere is this more evident than on the opening track: “Seek Shelter” introduces a gospel choir to produce a sense of spaciousness bands usually reserve for closing tracks. While their usual hard hitting drums and sharp guitars are on full display, it mostly evokes a hard rocking version of Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile”, underdog narrative included. This (for Iceage rather atypical) inspiration carries over into “High & Hurt”, which feels quite consciously inspired by “Jumping Jack Flash”, only to reference (and then interpret) the traditional “Will the Circle be Unbroken”, yes – the one used in Bioshock Infinite.

It’s odd to see Iceage – now expanded to a five piece – indulge so comfortably in references, sort of playing catch-up with the audience. But it’s less interesting to interpret these references than to assert what type of scenario it is the band creates through them – such as understanding that “Drink Rain” inhabits the same position here that “Death is a Star” had on Combat Rock, or that “Gold City” is sort of their take on a Bob Dylan album closer (though still a little louder).

In every moment of its runtime, Seek Shelter attempts to be a great, canonical rock album in the vein of those British rock acts that embraced American genre traditions found on Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 lists. Besides a distinct likeness to the Stones’ classic Let it Bleed, it comes decidedly closer to the type of album of the early 1970s, when glam and hard rock melted together to generate punk’s breeding grounds. Alice Cooper’s Killer is a close sibling, and comparisons to Faces’ Ooh La La also aren’t all that off – albums which, back then, actually scared parents and generated the mythology of rockstars as boozed up harlequins.

This rock’n’roll spirit is also reflected in the lyrics, with Elias crooning “We crash and then burn / water’s rising / hypnotizing slowly as we flow” on “Shelter Song” and “Slit the fruits as we lie in its residue / Transform the dusk to nightfall as we tremble in its wake” on “Gold City”. Images of everlasting love and violent struggles with society, metaphors of wars and whirlwinds abound to characterize counter cultural upheaval: “I heed the call / That of a guiding hand / The one who understands / That blood needs to flow free / Murder can be / Expressed in a million ways / It can be a means to kill / Or a way to teach,” he posits on “The Wider Powder Blue”.

Some of that might come with the involvement of producer and Spaceman 3 co-frontman Sonic Boom (Peter Kember), given he spent a few years of the 80s attempting to craft the perfect rock’n’roll album. Yet, what’s strange is how loosely cohesive Seek Shelter still feels. Where Beyondless managed to suggest a clear journey over its runtime, starting with the breathless “Hurrah” and ending on the pummelling title track, Seek Shelter at times feels as if the band switched the dynamic of the album up to a point where it lacks emotional cohesion. “The Holding Hand” feels more like an opener than a closer, while “Shelter Song” almost works as a send-off. With “Vendetta”, “Drink Rain” and “Gold City” in the middle of the album, it almost sounds like there’s shards of abandoned story-arcs sandwiched between riff-heavy hit material.

This perceived lack of direction doesn’t hurt the material; it induces the same drunk, esoteric quality of Combat Rock, even if both albums are tonally very different. In that sense, Seek Shelter isn’t the big, era-defining statement, but a transitional album for the quintet, opening up the possibility of rock’n’roll in their arsenal. While this stylistic choice doesn’t fit 2021’s overarching trends, it proves just how good Iceage are at transforming their sonic interests into full-blown epics.