I should have known what was coming based on the train of band shirts parading through the venue doors, but when a full-fledged mosh pit swallowed up the foot of the stage at La Sala Rossa barely after Iceage had finished their first song, I was unprepared enough to nearly be swept away in the sea of thrashing bodies. As well as being harbingers of the mosh, the variety of artists emblazoned on the chests of showgoers reflected the band’s ability to pull from fans of the hardcore classics (Black Flag) to the lesser-known local bands (METZ, Ought). Beyond the fringes of punk, garage rock got some representation, with a Black Lips shirt hinting at a joint tour coming later in the year. The diverse appeal may be due to Iceage sloughing off some of the calluses formed after their blistering debut 7 years ago with splashes of Americana and Motown heard in the sparkling instrumentation of their most recent album, Beyondless. Despite the addition of piano, strings, and horns, the energy that first propelled them out of Copenhagen’s DIY scene as 18-year-olds is definitely matured, but still undeniably present.
My failure to foresee Iceage’s intensity could in part be explained by the false sense of security established by the openers, whose mostly ambient offerings barely suggested what was to come. Local DJ Tempestas started off her set with an atmospheric drone that sounded like static slowed and pitched way down, maintaining and transmuting this sinister undercurrent of white (or rather, black) noise while coaxing surprisingly danceable beats out of her modular synths.
Harpist Mary Lattimore performed next for a crowd steadily becoming less able to contain their excitement for the main act. With the inherent polyphonic abilities of the harp supplemented by the magic of a multi-effect pedal in her lap, her looping layered instrumentals carried over the chatter of the audience and past any default “hey-look-it’s-a-harp!” comparisons to Joanna Newson. A few minutes in, she invited up Iceage guitarist Johan Wieth for an improvised jam that would be the closest indicator of the act to follow. Breaking the ice after this interlude, Lattimore exchanged cannibal jokes with the audience (“What did the cannibal’s wife give her husband when he came home late? The cold shoulder”) before providing some emotional context to the otherwise self-explanatory piece, “On the Day You Saw the Dead Whale.” Summary: she saw it washed up on a California beach, and it made her feel some type of way.
Though the host of musical influences contained within make Beyondless the most accessible album out of the band’s four, the voice of Iceage leading man Elias Bender Rønnenfelt is an unmistakable constant throughout. His drawn-out syllables are part of a vocal style that, put bluntly, makes him sound half drunk. A turnoff for some, his intoxicated drawl makes more sense with repeat listens of the album and certainly comes together with his swaggering presence. As he followed his bandmates on stage, even before starting their first song, “Hurrah,” Rønnenfelt already looked vaguely confused and sweaty as if he’d just woken up and run into the venue from the tour bus still wearing his outfit from their last show. From underneath damp bangs, his icy gaze cut through the song’s intro, matching chilling lyrics about man’s homicidal tendencies.
The band continued in the order of the Beyondless tracklist for the next two songs, with Rønnenfelt slurring through the poppy chorus of “Pain Killer” with particular force and incomprehensibility, either to make up for the absence of Sky Ferreira’s feature or incited by the energy of the increasingly manic crowd. The attention wasn’t just on the frontman, though, as their extra member added for the tour emerged from behind his keyboard and took up a violin, scratching out the intermittent tremolos behind “Under the Sun” before bowing the song’s sweeping finish. It was then back to the keys for him, banging out the accompaniment for Rønnenfelt’s decidedly un-Christmasy “La La La” chorus in “Plead the Fifth.”
A tour through a couple of the band’s most country-influenced cuts were next, with drummer Dan Nielsen and bassist Jakob Pless propelling the jangly figures of the guitar in “The Lord’s Favorite” from their previous album. Audience members occasionally cresting in the tempest of bodies crashing around the stage to chant along to lyrics further confounded any attempt to decipher Rønnenfelt’s diction before dying down during the honky-tonk shuffle of “Thieves Like Us.” The lull was not to last, as the band used the song’s building finish to propel themselves into “The Day the Music Dies.” The absence of the recorded version’s horns made for an easy transition into the buzzsaw guitar of “Morals” from sophomore album You’re Nothing.
Prior to returning to a series of throwbacks was another recent song, “Take It All,” which featured the reappearance of the violin as well as a brief speech from Rønnenfelt expressing his regret for the lost possibility of ever meeting Leonard Cohen. Starting with “Ecstasy,” a trio of older favorites satiated the ravenous mosh monster which had by now grown to at least a third of the venue. Opening its collective mouth, the beast growled along to “White Rune,” the one song of the set from Iceage’s first record, New Brigade.
Now breathless not just by effect but from a set nearing its end, Rønnenfelt whispered, “Beyondless” as if to not only introduce the eponymous song but as some mystical concluding epithet for the performance as a whole. This theory would be immediately contradicted, however, as the band did indeed go beyond into the album’s single “Catch It” and even a rare encore.
Wisely, the only new song omitted from the set was “Showtime,” which relies heavily on a sleazy muted trumpet and other horns for its cabaret flourish. Even without this theatrical number, Rønnenfelt fully embodied the drama throughout the show, stumbling about the stage with limbs held at odd angles as if possessed by the spirit of rebellious music. In interviews, he has mused about the part of him that desires stardom, and as the band has gained popularity, some fans have lamented their departure from the ripping ferocity of New Brigade and You’re Nothing. Despite their flirtation with other genres, it was clear from their live show that Iceage remain committed to the raw punk force that fueled their earlier days. Just one additional bandmate is insufficient to fully flesh out their expanded sound, and whether intentional or for practical reasons, the effect is one of a band remaining true to their roots.
Towards the end when someone threw something on the stage, the band made it clear where they stand: Rønnenfelt automatically returned the item to the audience with a curt “Fuck off” punctuated by Pless’ shaking head. Between this demonstration of keeping their feet on the ground and the tumult of raging bodies swelling ever closer to where I was standing, it was hard to see how fans could complain of the band losing their edge. In fact, if it weren’t for stories of giddy and bloodied audience members from previous shows threatening to hold La Sala Rossa all too true to its name, I might have let loose and joined in. Next time, perhaps.
Review – Dylan Lai
Photos – Jean-Michel Lacombe