Saturday, June 16, 2007
The Icarus Line - Penance Soiree
I bought this album when I was 14 years old and I distinctly recall being captivated by the album's very prevalent aura of abrasiveness. Everything from the cover (one of my favorites ever) to the first song being called "Up Against The Wall Motherfuckers" to the pictures of the band members on the back of the CD case, all clad in black and red (but mostly black, of course), with facial expressions that most definitely did not exude good vibes of any sort, to the album being recorded in Hollywood, quite the contribution to the record's smack blasting party atmosphere.
The album made me instantly think of the heaviest and scariest of noise-rock bands I'd heard at that point... Big Black, the Jesus Lizard, Flipper, etc. Thing is, though, I had only heard a few songs from those bands' catalogs, and if you were to ask me to give you the most brutal, barely musical shit that I had, I wouldn't have had a whole lot to work from. Besides the Line's menacing, blow inhaling image, the actual sound of the album is what really took me aback. Because Penance Soiree is a LOUD album. I'm not sure if it's the kind of over-digitized "loudness war" loud that Nick Southall gets so worked up about (and rightly so), but the album definitely has a very in-the-red kind of distortedness to it, in such a way that listening to it on headphones results in feeling a whole lot like the dude on the album cover, the guitars overfuzzed in a manner that is most definitely both head whipping and face smashing. And I wasn't completely unfamiliar with the concept of guitars being distorted to fucking oblivion... I'd heard most of Raw Power and I'd heard the Jesus & Mary Chain (and J&MC followers the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) and I'd heard her call my name. I was yet to encounter XTRMNTR, the Goslings, Kevin Drumm, and various other music that might strike terror into the hearts of stereo salesmen.
Anyways, fuck. At the time, this was my musical brick to the fucking skull. The Icarus Line were just the most extreme dudes, and Penance Soiree was the most extreme album, noisyass rock 'n roll that harkened back to the pure fucking danger of the Stooges and the Stones. It's the kind of album that comes across as being more badass than all of your other albums, the kind that any lover of "extreme" music is almost guaranteed to love, in the same league as Goat, Fun House, White Light/White Heat, Spacemen 3, Songs About Fucking, Suicide, early Napalm Death... just totally defining what it is to appreciate the presence of violence in music. In fact, I'm pretty sure I first saw this album championed by a poster on the Sound Opinions Message Board who appreciates such violence moreso than probably any music listener I have ever encountered.
One small thing about the album, though: I just wish it was better. I've read a lot of on-the-money sentences about this record, and an uncomfortable amount of those things tend to lean towards the "negative" side, the most poignant being Sam Ubl's suggestion that "[i]f rock 'n' roll had nothing to do with music and everything to do with attitude, the Icarus Line would be the greatest fucking band" and Jon Garrett's declaring of the band as one that he should like "in theory, yet can't write songs to save their lives." Yet even a more glowingly positive remark like Tiny Mix Tapes's suggestion that Penance Soiree is "2004's Source Tags & Codes (only it's about 100x better)" gets even further to the root of why this album doesn't quite do it for me.
On Source Tags & Codes, Trail of the Dead utilized a major label budget in order to craft a completely epic fucking all-out realization of their potential as a band. And that's more or less what the Icarus Line did here. The record definitely sounds great (compared to the somewhat thin Jesus Lizard ripoff Mono) and as TotD's album was this sort of post-hardcore tour de force, blending Fugazi, Gravity Records, Unwound, Drive Like Jehu, At The Drive-In, and countless others into what is quite the sweepingly cinematic (and in such a way that simply doesn't let me avoid using this word) masterpiece, Penance Soiree does the same with, uh, 35 or so years of the most dirtyass rock 'n roll imaginable.
Only problem is that too many of the songs don't quite live up to just how fucking badass this album and band appear to be. Saying that they "can't write songs to save their lives" is a bit harsh, since "Up The Against The Wall Motherfuckers" completely fucking crushes, and does so with actual purpose (thanks to a downright throat drilling bassline), and the second track "Spit On It" succeeds exceptionally well in being a brief, no-bullshit, neck snapping punker. On a similarly positive note, "Spike Island" is another standout, as it tones down the guitar bombast for a sexier, groovier brand of swagger. Then there's a really long song in the middle of the album called "Getting Bright At Night" that thankfully manages to make good developmental use of its nine minute running time. Oh, yeah, and the last song rules. "Party The Baby Off," it's called. The chorus/hook is "take off all your clothes." It certainly manages to "party the baby off," I'd say.
Those were the songs that stood out to me as a 14 year old music listener, and revisiting the album recently, their appeal certainly hasn't waned. It's the rest of the album that just breaks my fucking heart. So many of these other songs are just fucking dead. I should like them, shouldn't I? Of course. But even the single "On The Lash" has very little going for it as far as any distinguishing qualities that might drive one to identify it as standing out from the vast breadth of rock music. Sure, it rocks, but well, that's about it! And unfortunately, despite the fact that the Icarus Line is a band full of utter badasses whose music is clearly loud and makes me want to do lots and lots of heroin, they can't really get by on just rocking as hard as possible. The Jesus Lizard did that on Liar, yet it still worked despite the songs not being quite as mind-blowingly good as those on Goat because the Lizard had a distinct, original sound that they could work from. Penance Soiree, despite a few great songs, is still a derivative-ass album, so when the songs aren't quite there, it all ends up seeming like not much more than boring old confrontational rock posturing. A song like "White Devil" starts out with a cool, slow, bluesy guitar line, ends with some awesome Fun House-style saxophone, and in between, there's absolutely nothing to grasp or hold onto, nothing to really make it stand above the rest of the songs in any way (except the fact that it's slower than the other ones. WOW!)
This is such a pity and oh, it's such a shame. Even at 14, upon constructing a year end list, I had to leave this record off because so much of it just didn't do shit for me, didn't grab me the way great pop music should (and the way a good four or five songs on here most definitely do.) It has so many workings of an all-out masterpiece, yet as a rock record, the central element behind its success as an album should be the songs, and that's where they really managed to fall short. Tragic. They have a new album coming out in a couple weeks. I can't imagine it will have the sort of epic scope that makes Penance Soiree so alluring (and in the end, disappointing), but who knows, maybe they've upped it in the songwriting department. Maybe not. Maybe they'll never amount to anything truly special beyond being "almost there" in 2004.
Rating: Not a great album, sorry. A fascinating one? Definitely. It has its moments... just not enough of them.
Song: "Spit On It"