The Icarus Line

Slave Vows

I’ve learned, over two decades and change of really quite serious record listening, that few are the artists who have even one masterpiece inside of them. Rarer still are the artists who can repeat this trick. We can debate this in the comments thread later, maybe (Stevie Wonder and Neil Young are two immediate exceptions to this and pretty much every rule). But before that, let’s make this much clear: The Icarus Line are such a band, and Slave Vows is their second stone-cold masterpiece.

Their first was 2004’s Penance Soiree, the second release that robed the inchoate snarl and unhinged post-hardcore cacophony of their 2001 debut Mono in decadent sleaze, druggy sludge, finessed venom and a constant threat of violence. Penance Soiree was a masterpiece for its songs, primarily: in particular a trio of tracks at the album’s centre (‘Kiss Like Lizards’, ‘Getting Bright At Night’ and ‘Big Sleep’, known within the band’s circle as "the holy trinity") that essayed meltdowns, heartbreak and psychosis on the seedier end of LA’s party scene with an erotic, disturbing, electrifying charge while riding riffs that’d pummel even Spacemen 3’s ‘Revolution’ in a brawl. It was also a masterpiece in how it distilled everything that made The Icarus Line who they were – nihilism, volatility, hedonism, desperation, dysfunction, destructiveness – into its 54 coruscating, seductive minutes. You really should own it.

Groups thriving on such fuel rarely hold it together for long, however, and so, with painful inevitability, The Icarus Line fragmented after touring Penance Soiree. Guitarist Aaron North – whose chaotic onstage behaviour (swinging from ceiling-mounted speaker stacks, scrapping with audience members and bouncers, and liberating a framed Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar from the wall of the Austin Hard Rock Café as they were playing onstage) had helped make The Icarus Line such an electrifying, heart-stopping tightrope-walk of a live experience – departed for Nine Inch Nails. Singer Joe Cardamone – broke, homeless, working to curtail his more self-destructive tendencies – presided over a fluid line-up, band-mates dropping out and rejoining as he shepherded the group though the trials of being dropped by V2 Records, then re-signed by the label, then label-less, as V2 went under weeks before releasing The Icarus Line’s third album.

2007’s Black Lives On The Golden Coast (ultimately released on Dim Mak) and its follow-up, 2011’s Wild Life, are both fine rock & roll records, in the same way that Iggy Pop and James Williamson’s Kill City is a fine record, but isn’t Raw Power (let alone Fun House). Still, though, Cardamone held the group, in its various forms, together, like Los Angeles’ last punk-rock cock-a-roach. Unkillable. Drug-free but still broke, he put whatever money he could make into building his own recording studio in Burbank, Valley Recording Company, which is where he recorded Slave Vows.

Slave Vows doesn’t sound a lot like Penance Soiree. The Icarus Line’s second album was, among other substances, recorded firmly under the influence of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain (they even covered ‘Hit It Or Quit It’, in their own discordant style). Slave Vows, though, shares more in common with Funkadelic’s self-titled debut, a step back towards the Stoogian, primordial ooze, devolving to a more primal noise, a dirgier groove.

It starts sombre, ten minute opener ‘Dark Circles’ sweeping in like a bad smog, a ship on vile seas, eddying and sloshing from side to side. The group mine its black mood deeper and deeper, until its molten core erupts into ear-shredding distortion, Cardamone wailing, "It’s just enough to drive you wild", his band pummelling out a neanderdelic climax.

‘Marathon Man’ – glowing at the album’s centre like a nuclear test site, radiating a savage malevolence – rises up from slithering guitar and snarl to squalling, screaming, phosphorescent fireworks of axe- and amp-abuse, Cardamone howling desperately into the maw, before falling back, rising, falling back again, and rising one final, unbowed time, pure cock-a-roach rock. The languid ‘Dead Body’, a barely-hanging-together groove of slow-rumbling bass, tremolo shimmer, breaks into an exultant, seamy rut-rock riff and Joe howls, again and again, till his throat shreds, "Can you feel it? Can you feeeeeel it?", copping the anguished, priapic soul of The Stooges’ ‘1970’ and riding it far beyond any comfort. Feel it, we do.

These are less ‘songs’ than bloodlettings, excoriating rituals, exercises in tension and release that make for electrifying, blood-splattered rock & roll. Throughout, Cardamone sounds edged into a corner, tooth and claw glared. And maybe these tracks are his autobiography, a survivor’s tale of saving one’s soul at heavy consequence. ‘No Money Music’, a sadomasochistic broadside loosely aimed at the entertainment industry, plays out like the more feral twin of Penance Soiree’s ‘Spit On It’, Joe raging at "the fork-dicked man on TV", howling "white people are fuckin’ sick", and taking part in "another dog eat pony show". On ‘Laying Down For The Man’, perhaps the album’s most scorching, fierce meltdown, Joe’s "in a ditch, trying to dance", ranting of "matchstick men who smell the lust in this sea of blood". It’s Hollywood, played out as some Hieronymus Bosch nightmarescape, some blood-sucking zombie movie, Lance Arnao holding down a bassline that ultimately buckles under the sheer weight of speaker-shredding white-noise.

That dangerous glamour The Icarus Line oozed circa Penance Soiree is still, improbably, intact, heard most clearly on closer ‘Rats Ass’, a switchblade shimmy that’d do Iggy proud. But the more unhinged, unchained Slave Vows is a howl from a bleaker place; where once he turned his coke-mirror on the excesses of LA past-midnight, Cardamone’s now raging and swaggering in a landscape of burned-out buildings and broken down cars, no longer charting the druggy lives of the decadent on the golden coast, but placing jagged glass at their throats, and pulling across.

Slave Vows, then, is a masterpiece, its black-hearted explosions and sordid vibes coming from a darker place than most of those pantomiming their way through rock & roll. But while there’s bleakness here, there’s also that sulphurous sound of resistance, of high drama at very real stakes. No poser, Cardamone has survived the helter-skelter, the mangle of the corporate machine, and realises that these are pretty apocalyptic times for rock & roll. Slave Vows, then, is the sound of nothing left to lose, a last ditch salvo, the sound of something that just won’t be killed. Equal parts lizard king and cock-a-roach, on Slave Vows Joe Cardamone rises triumphant.

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