Review: Iceburn ‘Asclepius’

Salt Lake City, Utah: a haven for Mormons, Jello-O consumption and the eclectic heavy sounds of Iceburn, or if you prefer: ‘The Iceburn Collective’. The original brainchild of Gentry Densley (of Eagle Twin and Ascend fame), Iceburn’s history goes all the way back to 1992 after having released their sophomore record Firon on the now celebrated metalcore label, Victory Records. From there, Iceburn became a permanent fixture of straight edge legends Revelation Records, putting out six releases on the label throughout the breadth of the 1990s.

Iceburn ‘Asclepius’

Absorbed into the hardcore scene of the 90s, Iceburn were/are anything but a straight forward HC band. Introducing elements of hard rock, traditional heavy metal and even free jazz/noise, the Collective would find musical sympathizers in the same scene from the likes of Into Another, Supertouch, Engine Kid and Shift. Apart from numerous ‘reunions’, Iceburn’s 20-year full-length hiatus is set to be broken at the end of June with Asclepius, released on Southern Lord. A forewarning; I’m a big fan of 90s HC bands that weren’t actually HC bands…this review may be biased.

Iceburn have never been a band to be pigeonholed. When talked about within the context of their musical history they are truly something unique. Self-described as a band that are constantly changing, each release brings a new incarnation. Whereas 1996’s Meditavolutions witnessed the band move into experimental grounds, introducing jazz/saxophone, Densley has described 2021’s Asclepius as a throwback to their original sound that recalls Firon and Hephaestus. Considering this, we might expect a more traditional outing this time around, yet like everything this Collective creates, Asclepius is its own beast.

A relatively short album clocking in at about 35 minutes, Iceburn deliver two sides of heft. Side one introduces Healing The Ouroboros a miscellany of doom, traditional heavy metal and noise rock. If like myself you’re familiar with early 90s Iceburn, the first thing that will perk your interest is tone and production. In true Southern Lord style, the track sounds clean and polished, with a dense, immersive guitar tone. By no means is this a negative; it’s simply an exhibition of a band’s evolution. For the time being, we will say gone are the jazzier influences that marked the band’s past and what we are presented with is a homage to 70s progressive rock, traditional doom and heavy metal.

About seven minutes in the band throw off the bridle to bring dual guitars together for a soaring, melodic bridge that feels like it could have been lifted from the archives of NWOBHM. It’s hard not to nod along to this; a catchy, mid-tempo but brooding chug. Just as we’re about to settle in for the long-haul groove, Iceburn (being typically Iceburn) change things up toward some familiar (or perhaps not?) territory. For the duration of the track, they return to their stop-start/quiet-loud trade in the vein of Slint and labelmates Engine Kid. As the needle draws closer to the label and the song peters out, you might be left wondering if you just listened to King Crimson going through an NYHC identity crisis. In my opinion, this confusion is nothing short of brilliant.

This is an album that is true to its own history and sound but isn’t afraid to move effortlessly and masterfully into a new lane…

Flip Asclepius over and side two draws us into Dahlia Rides The Firebird. Comparable to Healing…, the second and last track conveys a more conservative attack but adventurous approach. Quieter, softer, the band introduces what can only be described as eastern fusion into their guitar work creating a ‘spiraling’ sound, if you can picture it? Densley’s vocals are rougher, gravellier and perhaps less ‘grunge’ as they were in the 90s, modified to a perfect fit for the odd doom that Iceburn now present. About six minutes into Dahlia… and again we see the band nod toward what, I think anyway, are the likes of Angel Witch, Saint Vitus and Friends of Hell-era Witchfinder General. I might be too transfixed on the heavy metal influences accomplished on this album, but I can’t help feel that they’re very obvious and accompanied with Iceburn’s general weirdness.

The formula used in Healing… is repeated (but by no means repetitive) as the band departs from metal and heads for poppier lands. There is a brief section where the bass sounds like it could have been written by (please forgive me…) The Police! For a brief time Iceburn become almost radio friendly until we’re brought crashing back down into hammering traditional doom. The Vitus-esque crawl coupled with Iceburn’s hammering experimentation whisks us into silence as the record earnestly comes to a close.

I have a fondness for everything this band is; their sound, their innovative progression and their hardcore history. I swear that Southern Lord have been targeting me since they anthologized Greg Anderson’s sXe roots, Brotherhood, way back in 2014. This year alone they’ve announced an Engine Kid discography reissue and now brand spanking new Iceburn material. Sweet Christ, just take my money now.

This is an album that is true to its own history and sound but isn’t afraid to move effortlessly and masterfully into a new lane. Asclepius is a concept album. It takes its name from Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine and healing. Unlike many unfortunate and obvious examples, Iceburn are an intellectual collective that feel no need to pander or self-fashion. Their latest triumph drops on Southern Lord at the end of June, and I eagerly encourage you to lend your ears and support.

Label: Southern Lord
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp

Scribed by: Mark Louth