Iceage is a band that toes the line between two musical camps, not settling comfortably into either and so existing on a curious plane in the middle. A little too slick and grand for the hardcore scene yet jagged enough to fall outside indie, the Danish quartet occupies a limbo that has contributed to its almost cultish acclaim on either side of the Atlantic.
On Friday, the band played the Great American Music Hall, a former bordello in the Tenderloin. Surrounded by baroque balconies and marbled colonnades, the band leaned into, sweated on and whipped a diverse crowd into a frenzy while still maintaining an aloof reserve. Its set was charged and vitriolic but had the misfortune of being sandwiched between unforgettable performances from Surfbort and the Black Lips.
Iceage has spent the last decade evolving from the somewhat derivative, cruder hardcore of its earlier albums, which featured little in the live set, to the noirish Americana of 2014’s Plowing Into the Field of Love, drawing comparisons to the Bad Seeds and early The Fall, and finally into its most recent release, Beyondless. This album, taking its title from Samuel Beckett’s “Worstward Ho,” is Iceage’s most rounded and intriguing one yet, featuring lush use of brass and woodwind but still holding onto the simmering misanthropy that has been a hallmark of the band’s sound from the beginning. Sky Ferreira is also a fine addition to the soundscape of Beyondless, her harmonies and breathy vocals rendering it more supple than the brittleness of old.
Unsurprisingly, it is from this collection of songs that the group drew most of its set at the Great American Music Hall, opening with the rumbling pulse of “Hurrah,” a feverish anti-war anthem that saw frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt flinging himself around the stage and growling about killing while guitarists Jakob Tvilling Pless and Johan Surrballe Wieth kept their eyes resolutely glued to the ground or their instruments. “Pain Killer,” arguably the band’s most melodic and pop-leaning track, benefited greatly from its catchy hook in the absence of Ferreira’s tones or the horns that mark it as a standout on Beyondless.
“Under the Sun” had a more trudging rhythm but featured many little builds and tempo changes, a facet of many songs in the set such as “Balm of Gilead” and “The Lord’s Favorite.” The music was just restrained enough to let tension build before it broke into a crescendo, thrilling the already-ecstatic crowd and giving Bender Rønnenfelt more opportunity to exert himself. This delivery, driven largely by drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen and the droning bass of Tvilling Pless, gave weight and significance to lyrics that are often strained, vague and indistinct.
There is a sense of danger to the abrasiveness of the music — Iggy Pop calls Iceage “the only current punk band I can think of that sounds really dangerous.” Another punk pioneer and icon, Richard Hell, has also been generous with his praise for the band, calling its presentation “as hardcore anarchic as any” and writing, “I can totally imagine myself as a kid lying in my closed-door room in the dark, listening to this band and getting what I need.” No mean feat for a group raised as far away from 1970s New York as 2000s Copenhagen, although the band’s proximity to the notorious hardcore scenes of Scandinavia likely had an influence on the rumors of associations with the far-right that dogged the band members in 2013 and that they subsequently addressed and denied.
What we yearn for in a group such as Iceage is a perfect juxtaposition between worldly grit and a removed profoundness that gestures at something beyond everyday life, and although the band’s music has come down more heavily on one side or the other at various points in the band members’ careers, they proved onstage in San Francisco that they are finally starting to strike the right balance.