Much of the appeal of New Brigade, the 2011 debut by Copenhagen post-punk upstart Iceage, was its study in contradictions. While working within a subgenre known for its precise, antiseptic approach, the teenaged band bridged that cold distance with a jittery abandon. Aggressively youthful yet joyously apocalyptic, New Brigade fulfilled much of its titular promise—that Iceage may indeed become the leader of a fresh charge of passionate, savagely sloppy post-punks.
New Brigade’s follow-up is You’re Nothing, and the nihilism of the name isn’t all for naught. The members of the band have left their teens, and Iceage’s spastic, scattershot energy has been refocused inward. This is a moodier record, and a far less catchy one. “Ecstasy”—a bitterly ironic title if ever there was one—opens the disc with churning melancholy and near-shoegazing guitars. It also sets the template for almost half the tracks that follow: listless thrashing, hookless vocals, and a palpable sense of self-negation. It may have a certain thematic integrity, but it makes for a tedious listen—even when there’s an attempt to shake things up with lyrics sung in the band’s native Danish (“Rodfæstet”) or a neck-breaking lunge toward utter brutality (“It Might Hit First”).
The bright spots, though, are incandescent. “In Haze” and “Awake” infuse chilly angularity with a burning, buzzing jangle reminiscent of Metal Circus-era Hüsker Dü. “Everything Drifts” falls back on two of Iceage’s main influences—early Joy Division and early Christian Death—but does so with an aching, abrasive desperation. And You’re Nothing’s eponymous closer reintroduces the lurching shoegaze of “Ecstacy,” only with a more compelling melody heightened by a shroud of brittle atmosphere.
You’re Nothing’s standout track—and one that truly feels like a step in a new direction—is “Morals.” Singer-guitarist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt has given glimpses of an incredible range, from monotone chant to melodramatic croon, but he’s never explored it in a single song as powerfully as he does here. At points he even sounds downright Bowie-ish, pushing a lush yet frightening romanticism augmented by stark piano, breathless swings of mood and tempo, and a pounding beat that’s both martial and soulful. It’s also the only track on You’re Nothing that truly embodies—and embraces—the band’s beguiling contrasts. Iceage’s sophomore disc may not match the jagged punch and pulse of its debut, but it points the way toward an escape from its frigid, self-imposed cell.