The past couple years haven't been too kind to Los Angeles sleaze merchants Icarus Line. In fact, when you come to think of it, the band's entire career has been something of a slog for frontman Joe Cardamone and his seemingly ever-rotating cast of players. Gaining some attention with their 2001 debut Mono, their real breakthrough came two years later with the searing Penance Soiree, a criminally overlooked album that seethed with danger and wit. Personal turmoil and label troubles spurned Black Lives at the Golden Coast, an all-over-the-place, holy mess of an album that all but completely sapped any momentum Penance Soireemight have gained them. By the time their fourth album--the snaky, villainous Wildlife-- rolled around, Icarus Line had been relegated to lifer status, an act all but forgotten thanks to their cockroach-like ability to soldier on in the face of utterly toxic circumstances-- drugs, money troubles, lineup-shifting creative differences. Though largely ignored in spite of its obvious quality, Wildlife marked the welcome return to the Stooge-ian hedonism of Penance Soiree. And now it's with Slave Vows that the Icarus Line continue on their road to redemption, offering up their best record since the one that should've made them contenders.
It's unlikely that the Icarus Line are going to hold it against you for brushing them off ("I don't care enough to hate you," Cardamone grumbles on "Rat's Ass"), but sure as hell don't expect them to hold your hand, either. "Dark Circles" is an 11-minute "fuck you" of an opener, moving from a squall of torrential feedback to seasick, churning rhythms to an arid spaghetti Western-styled final act. It's not a great song, but rather a warning that if you aren't with them, you're against them, and now would be a good time to get out of the way. What follows is more earthen and scorched than anything the band has released to date, and while the formula onSlave Vows
is fairly consistent-- songs start out comely, lurching and depraved, only to explode into id-startled fits of furious chaos and noise-- nothing feels forced or wasted. Recorded live to tape (the band's preferred method), the album taps into Icarus Line's infamous live show, complete with acid-scarred guitars and Cardamone's unique yelps and mutters and screams, which exude as much sex as they do terror.
"It's my fault I'm dedicated," he sings on "Marathon Man", sounding uncommonly principled for once. But it's his commitment to keeping Slave Vows as feral and uncompromising as it ultimately needs to be is what makes it so exciting. "Marathon Man" starts out snarling and slow, eventually giving way to a torrent of strangled noise that suggests every instrument is being physically wrestled and beaten into submission like rabid dogs. Even better is the sordid, striptease-ready "Dead Body", which starts off sounding like the perfect soundtrack for a good old fashioned roll in the glass, but as it explodes with such raw power and hellish riffage, the only thing it feels good for is triggering a panic attack. It's a jarring reminder of the viciousness this band is capable of.
Very little has been written about the Icarus Line without some mention of Iggy and the Stooges, and it's no wonder. Visit the band's official website, and you'll find a show flyer featuring a shirtless Cardamone lit in a very familiar orange fluorescence. But to fault Icarus Line for aping seminal punk, garage and no wave acts is to discount just how good they are at translating and nourishing these touchstones. If you could convincingly pull off an approximation of the Stooges frenzied fusion of sex and danger, then why the hell wouldn't you? Only on the final three tracks do the band go full Wild Child, which instead of sounding, well, slavish are instead nothing but a pleasure. The closest they get here to an actual bite is "No Money Music", which sounds almost exactly like Suicide's "Ghost Rider", right down to those piercing, echoed screams. In less capable hands it would feel cliché; here it's convincingly harried and frightening and nuts.
Slave Vows could use a little fine tuning, of course. At 45 minutes it's shorter than Penance Soiree, but lacks its concision and punch, at times wading a little too deeply into the indulgent waters of burdened, discordant blooze. And Cardamone-- despite convincingly inhabiting the sunken-eyed Lothario he truly is-- plays up the misestimated shock value a little more than he needs to ("Brick by brick, white people are fucking sick"). But at its core,Slave Vows is an album that plays by its own set of rules, unencumbered by any sort of expectation; it's one of the few perks being left for dead offers. "It's been the end of times for a long time," Cardamone murmurs on the sulphuric "Laying Down for the Man". If Slave Vowsis any indication, it's anything but.