Feb 19, 2013

Music Review: "You're Nothing" by Iceage

By Ian Cory

Intentionally lo-fi music is a dangerous game. Now that high quality recording technology is easily accessible and usable for increasingly shrinking costs, artists that decide to go the less polished route better have pretty compelling reasons to do so. More stripped down, singer-song writer types tend to flourish in this context, where the lack of production creates a sense of intimacy and honesty. The same cannot be said for louder or more arranged rock bands. In the case of Iceage, the choice to go lo-fi is no doubt an attempt to emulate the raw origins of the punk bands that they draw their other stylistic elements from. The problem here is that early lo-fi approach was done out of necessity not aesthetic preference. On You’re Nothing, Iceage misinterpret and misrepresent their own music with this lo-fi approach, often placing the most interesting and inspired elements in the background while emphasizing their weaknesses.

The most aggravating part of this problem is that it is in some ways a solution to the flaws of Iceage’s last record. New Brigade suffered from a lack of clarity in its songwriting. Practically every track was stuck in the grey area between accessibility and intensity. The fast pace and murky distortion pushed them in the direction of arty hardcore punk, but the apathetic approach to vocals and melody suggested something closer to Joy Division. These two impulses consistently cancelled each other out, leading to a record that was too tuneless to be memorable and not energetic enough to be engaging. In this sense, You’re Nothing is a vast improvement. On top of tightening up their instrumental performances, especially the drumming, many of the songs have genuinely well crafted melodies. The duel chanting and guitar lead on “Wounded Heart” makes that track the most anthem sized tune they’ve ever written. Similarly, the wiry guitars on “In Haze” and “Awake” stand out than the entirety of New Brigade. The band has even expanded its instrumental range by adding piano, as well as a more advanced chord vocabulary on “Morals”, giving them more emotional heft than ever.

Nearly all the best parts of the album come from the guitar, but judging by the mix it sounds like Iceage don’t agree. Instead of pushing these strong melodies to the forefront, they mixed the vocals louder than the entirety of the band. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the vocals weren’t still the same mumbling lazy moans that they were on the last album. Elias Ronnenfelt only perks up from his slumber on “Burning Hand” and “It Might Hit First” two heavier tracks that are again undercut by the guitars being lost in the background of the mix. Even more perplexing is the overwhelming amount of cymbal noise pushed to high volumes. Instead of adding a layer of grime and lo-fi charm like feedback would, this just makes the album sound like a scratched CD, something that absolutely no one is nostalgic about.

It feels harsh to say that Iceage don’t know what they’re doing, but over the course of two albums, and plenty of touring experience, they have demonstrated little awareness of how their music functions. Punk music has little room for bands unwilling to commit to an extreme. Go full pop, go full hardcore, at least go somewhere instead of wallowing in the no-man’s land between.

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