Then Came the Punks

Illustration for article titled Then Came the Punks
Image: KATRINE EMILIE ANDERSEN/AFP (Getty Images)

Rarely do they emerge this great. When Danish punk band Iceage descended upon New York in 2011, months after releasing their debut album, New Brigade, ten years old todayfirst on Copenhagen imprint Escho/Tambourhinoceros and U.S. avant label Dias, later, the indie What’s Your Rupture?—something in the air shifted and become inert, like sweat levitating above a reverberating snare drum. The mystifying teenage band inspired such vim almost instantaneously, word spread among music industry impresarios and tastemaker bloggers, gatekeepers who seldom looked to punk for its latest phenomenons.

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Six months after the release of New Brigade, Iceage gigs ran the spectrum of official showcases populated by A&R-types clamoring to sign them, and stints at straight-edge hardcore houses where their clangorous, genre-anarchic punk was unwelcomed by sentient spikey jackets who felt Iceage had yet to pay their dues, despite having been a band for at least four years prior (unfair), or that they were too far gone, owned now by businessmen and Bon Iver fans alike (justified.) I have a hazy memory of watching a punk attempt to urinate on the band, who were simply trying to get drunk in the hallway outside the booze-less hallowed ground—an extravagant hazing ritual, or an attempt at humbling them. Now, I recognize he was probably reacting to the room becoming filled with plainclothes Pitchfork readers instead of punks—which rarely happened then but now, post-Iceage, is a frequent occurrence—and he couldn’t be bothered. Either way, it was a valiant performance.

And yet, Iceage worked in both spaces: the “ask a punk” warehouse venues consecrated through word of mouth, and those brand name whiskey-sponsored clubs where curious indie rock attendees were made to experience physical performance again. Of course, in the weeks and years that followed, Iceage would continue to prove themselves talents that exist outside expectation: with longevity, which often eludes even the most innovative punk bands, and with continuous reinvention, the ambition of critically acclaimed and culturally celebrated rock and roll bands. And it all began with their New Brigade: 12 songs in 24 minutes.

An introduction begins the album: marital production that mirrors an anxious heartbeat, repeated and unraveled into discordant, propulsive noise. What follows is a goth rallying cry sent into hyperdrive: “White Rune,” into the title track, into “Remember,” two-minute songs that, in their brief runtime, create dimension: the energy of a warehouse show, an exhale before the song begins, the speed in which a good riff can change your life. For fans of heavy, dark, metallic music, New Brigade is immediately unique but not unfamiliar: it is noise, it is no wave, it is abrasive and confident and full-bodied and brooding and so very styled. Comparisons can be made to neo-folk, to Wire, to Killing Joke, to Joy Division, but also to the fury of D-beat—failing and simultaneously, direct. No likeness is exact; New Brigade is a hardcore album that flirts with post-punk and death rock just enough to convince listeners it isn’t. Iceage were fresh and young and imaginative, even in singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s existential bellows. I struggle to describe the album now, as I did when I first heard it—it was, and remains, an ineffable thrill, the sacred and scarce sensation of music urgently taking aim and striking the chest.

Reviewers exalted the record, obsessed with the apparent mysteriousness of the band. How could a group this good appear out of nowhere, and with an album this fully realized? Some postured that Iceage were the saviors of punk, despite the music’s total global ubiquity and relentless spirit—and don’t indie rockers listen to Fucked Up?—punk never died, it only went largely unremarked upon in mainstream music circles at the time. At any rate, hype inspires hyperbole, and in the case of Iceage, it felt deserved.

New Brigade is an album I return to infrequently, savoring the flavor of every bite, irrationally concerned that it will lose its impact. In a decade, it never has, which is enough for me to label it a modern classic, but others may only be convinced when considering its legacy: without question, New Brigade brought punk conversation in a space it had been dormant in for some time (though they, themselves, are notoriously curt interviews): college radio hosts and music writers, those who spent the previous decade swooning over Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear, and Animal Collective, found themselves looking toward the beer-stained underground—just so slightly, a quick toe-dip, not a nose dive—and listeners followed. And unlike albums made by those artists, New Brigade doesn’t sound painfully 2011.

I wonder, too, if some of the speed in which Iceage’s appeal proliferated was extramusical—bonus points atop an undeniable record. Live, the band is bewildering to watch, unblinking. They wore teenage scowls atop polos and bomber jackets, trench coats, button-down shirts, and white tees tucked into fitting jeans—a far cry from the leather punks so frequently associated with this kind of music. On more than one occasion, genre purists have labeled and dismissed the band as “pretty boy punk.” While I’d usually avoid such a superficial descriptor, I find it to be relevant. (And as the preeminent Iceage scholar Zachary Lipez brilliantly writes, “We’re not supposed to talk about attractiveness of bands anymore; presumably not until that game is no longer weaponized against the Boy Bands made up of ladies. But The Strokes wouldn’t have been the Strokes if they’d looked like Guided By Voices, and neither would Iceage.” I tend to agree.) At the very least, Iceage symbolized a new kind of punk: fervent and Herculean as all hell, prone to bloody, high octane pits, but dressed up in a softer, more accessible masculinity—at least for those unfamiliar with or intimidated by the music.*

*And by music, of course, I mean anarcho-punks and their fashion.

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Ten years on, I question if New Brigade would’ve inspired the same sort of immediacy as it did during the time of its release, if it came out in 2021. Truth be told, I don’t think it could’ve existed the same way: the album cover, for one, is runic, and the band has long since been accused of flirting with fascist iconography, like so many post-punk and oi! bands (and dumb ass teenagers) before them. They’ve since denounced those behaviors and have vocalized support for the Black Lives Matter movement, expressing left wing viewpoints, which is more than I can say for the Ariel Pinks of the world. And for what it is worth, no questionable politics or god forbid, hate speech, make an appearance on the album. It was all an image, and that image no longer exists.

What remains is a killer record, one that undoubtedly shaped punk and indie rock for years to come, one that eventually lead to Iceage to signing with big indie label Matador, international acclaim, main stage festival sets, award nominations, a decade long career with endless sonic pivots, Nick Cave worship, and a slew of other new rock bands studying Rønnenfelt’s morose baritone: England’s Shame and Sweden’s Holograms come to mind. And when I need it, like I do today, I’ll put on New Brigade—to feel its particular transcendence once more.

URL: Senior Writer, Jezebel. IRL: Author of the very good book 'LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS,' out now.

DISCUSSION

After falling down an Indie Pop hole these past few years, I’ve found myself listening to more Punk stuff, such as (apologies if these bands are lame, always open to recommendations!) Viagra Boys, Starcrawler, and IDLES, amongst others. I think I’m gonna add Iceage to that list.