Punk is what, exactly? It's some anger, constantly simmering at the edges of polite society, some pain and horror that just won't go away. It's a voice shouting out what is wrong and sometimes even what might be done to fix some of it. It's a way of life. It's a lot smarter than fuck off. It is not loud guitars and drums, it's not some snotty singer throwing shapes. It's not leather jackets, mohawks and nose rings. It's not power chords and it's not 30 second songs. Well, it can be. It can be all of those things but it doesn't need to be. On young Danish punks Iceage's second album, You're Nothing, it is some of these things, some of the time.
“It all comes down to shame,” goes the chorus on 'Wounded Hearts', “and some sense of distance”. Elias Rønnenfelt roars it out with a group of voices backing him up. This is the keystone of the album as a whole, the feelings of shame and distance. 'Ecstasy' is the effort we put in to try to stave off shame, and that which inevitably feeds it a little further down the line. 'Coalition' is the opposite of distance, an attempt to join together. These first two tracks get things off to a frenetic start, Rønnenfelt's voice sitting high in the mix over the heaving instrumentation, before the quiet, spare 'Interlude' reigns things back in.
The crushing trio of songs that appear after the small break are heavy, writhing slabs of punk rock. 'Burning Hand' hits hard with a spectacular chorus, Rønnenfelt asking directly, “Do you hear me?”. He crashes though time, skin and space, a “misadventure”, looking for meaning, purpose or direction. 'In Haze' is almost straight up hardcore in the D.C. style, anthemic, dynamic and pummeling all at once. “A war goes on, all the lost grace” is the killer line, delivered at the end of the chorus to poisonous effect.
'Morals' is the epic and it is leagues ahead of anything that appeared on New Brigade, in form, content and execution. Starting with a Cure-like sense of disturbing intimacy, Rønnenfelt's every is breath exposed as distant piano chords offset the militant guitar fuzz. The band snap instantly into a full-throttle chorus before pulling back to take a breath, a half-verse snatched from the maw of the inevitable climax. It snaps in again and takes off properly this time, raging to a peak with Rønnenfelt demanding an answer to his question, “Where's your morals?”. At three minutes and twenty seconds it's the album's joint-longest track but it's also a remarkably dense, tightly-wound song, with expertly calculated periods of tension and release where anger, intimacy and over-whelming emotion battle for moments of clarity throughout. Rønnenfelt's lyrics are a central, driving force, catching the mood and enhancing it. The opening line, “These songs they never reach far enough,” is enough to draw you in, the feeling of someone alight with the need to be heard painfully obvious in his voice. That final insistent question hangs in the air long after the marching beat fades to black.
The frantic run to the finish shows off everything that is great about the Iceage formula. Its constituent elements are old, classic even, but each song feels new and powerful. They've mixed it all in their own way and shown that there is, as Joseph Stannard put it in the Wire recently, still a need for this kind of music. 'Wounded Hearts' blends Joy Division hollowness with that Embrace-style shout-a-long chorus and it doesn't feel at all weird. The cacophonous 'It Might Hit First' is the heaviest thing they've done by a long way, messy, speedy hardcore with barked vocals, over and done with within the magical hardcore ideal of 90 seconds.
The title track ends things, boasting a fist-raising chorus that seems designed to send bodies flying around pits. Again it's a marked development from the sound of New Brigade, cleaner, smarter and more powerful for it. The song and album feel like anthems for a new era of punk anger, a time when ideas like grace, morals and togetherness feel more out of reach than ever. It feels like a call to arms, a fight to take back hope. Sonically it is a move from the mix of first wave punk and post-punk of New Brigade (that earned them a thousand Joy Division comparisons without actually sounding at all like Joy Division) to something more in tune with the Dischord bands of the late 80s and early 90s, as well as bands like Moss Icon. It's strange, off-center and deeply emotional with the ability to drive headfirst into an anthemic chorus just to get the blood going. On the surface of things, Iceage might seem an easy band to write off as being too indebted to the greats of the past but they are moving a tradition forward in their own way. This is new and old and brilliant.