With each successive album, the Icarus Line has strayed further and further away from the rigorously enforced, ultra-minimalist “hardcore” subgenre in which they’re often lumped (Wikipedia lists them as “post-hardcore,” which is at least chronologically accurate). The band’s latest, Slave Vows, forges more of their own identity into the Jesus and Mary Chain fandom hinted at on 2007’s Black Lives at the Golden Coast. This isn’t cover-band homage anymore; the Icarus Line has grifted the surly cool, bitter fury, and obliterating noise of Honey’s Dead and made it all their own.
The opening track, “Dark Circles,” comes out of the gate like a smeared mashup of late-period Mary Chain. Imagine “Teenage Lust” and “Reverence” playing simultaneously with the volume and treble turned up to glass-shattering levels, all fearsome feedback and whining guitar that stretches on for several minutes as a funereal drum beat buried somewhere inside keeps time. Slowly, the din fades and the Icarus Line’s true intention emerges: to murder the blues like Shellac destroying their amps with warped Howling Wolf covers at the tail-end of a wicked bender. This plan reaches a crescendo at the album’s midpoint: “Dead Body” is Slave Vows’s own “Good Morning Captain,” a slithering menace of a track that creeps along for four odd minutes before suddenly collapsing under a cascade of slashing guitars and terrifying noise that’s faintly reminiscent of the classic Slint track while retaining a pulverizing power that’s the Icarus Line’s alone.
In every one of the album’s eight tracks, the guitars sound like they’re mad at you personally. Every song sounds like the aftermath of an urban riot. You can spot glimpses of the bands that got the Icarus Line here: the Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, Jesus Lizard, the Stooges, and most of Touch and Go’s roster circa 1995. Yet the album that Slave Vows most brings to mind is Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime. Like that album, it isn’t the never-changing, defiantly narrow brand of “hardcore” still practiced by bands like Trash Talk, Off!, Flag, and (the reanimated corpse of) Bad Brains. But it is hardcore, a visceral distillation of fury that aims to wound. The first of the two definitions is hopelessly rooted in the past, a comforting trip in the Way Back machine for old punkers. The second definition is ever-expanding and inclusive to any method of expression, whether it be the blistering techno of Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR or the blunt-trauma hip-hop of Death Grips’ The Money Store.
Slave Vows isn’t flawless like those albums. Singer Joe Cardamone has an instrument that’s unusually varied and powerful for this style of music, equal parts Michael Hutchence and Ronnie James Dio. But there are moments, as on “City Job,” where, like his closest vocal antecedents, he lapses into histrionic lizard-king self-parody, ruining the immediacy that gives these songs their caustic power. Yet all told, those brief false moments disappear in the shadow of towering music that sounds like it was scientifically engineered to take down skyscrapers. As the title of the second track, “Don’t Let Me Save Your Soul,” makes clear: The Icarus Line isn’t on a rescue mission, and Slave Vows sure as hell isn’t a lifeline.