In the span of four albums, Iceage has gone from Nihilistic hardcore teenagers led by a singer with a drinking problem to textured and nuanced post-pop-noir led by a functioning alcoholic young adult. The difference is as dramatic as the band itself; Elias Bender Rønnenfelt previously stumbled around as if he was trying to stand up on a carnival ride, his voice wavering into and away from the mic he forgot was there most of the time a la Darby Crash in the first Decline of Western Civilization movie. Nowadays he writes thoughtful lyrics that are worth paying attention to, so he pays attention to them. Lucky us.This is the fourth time I have seen Iceage since 2013, and three of those shows, including this one, were in the spartan basement of the First Unitarian Church. Elias spent the show alternating between jumping into the crowd and hanging on the ceiling of the unfinished space while I held the seething, sweaty crowd away from guitarist Johan Surrballe Wieth’s pedal board.
A violinist who also played keyboards might not have fit–literally, since it was after all a basement–but also with the much more primitive sound the band had only a few years ago. He seemed indispensable now, though, as Iceage ran through its new album, Beyondless, nearly in its entirety. His violin screeched alongside “Hurrah,” the set-opener, cutting through the dance-punk rhythm like a stagediver through a parting sea of arms to the floor >He augmented the distorted guitars in the same manner that the natural fizz of sax does, and he slammed his keyboard along with “The Day the Music Dies” creating a staccato bleat like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” gone blues-infused cowpunk. In the past Iceage would practically abandon older releases and concentrate on whatever their most recent album was. They seem to be relenting in their still-not-old age, even retrofitting You’re Nothing’s “Ecstasy” with hissing fiddle and dragging a bouncing, rambling “White Rune” from the 2010 New Brigade debut out of the mothballs.
Although Elias was on his best behavior, and his bandmates continued their tradition of scarcely even acknowledging that there was an audience, there was still spontaneity at the set’s conclusion with what was almost certainly an unplanned encore. The house lights went up and the band started to disengage but the Philadelphia crowd made just enough noise to convince them to strap back in. They played “Broken Hours.” The slow-burning, smoky, brooding tune appears as a Beyondless bonus track in Japan, but it dates back to the band’s early days and they don’t often play it. Lucky us. “I like their older stuff” isn’t a cliché despite it being one of the most overused expressions in layman rock criticism because it’s nearly always the correct thing to say about a band. Iceage is the rare exception that can claim each album is exponentially more impressive than the one preceding it, and they stand out even more by achieving this not by continually honing their sound, but by taking chances. But that’s not the scariest thing about this band. That would be none of them are ever 27 years old yet. They could be doing this for a long time. Lucky us.