Thursday, October 08, 2020


While a sonic rollercoaster, IDLES third effort in the studio comes across lyrically and thematically flawed.

In the years since their debut album Brutalism in 2017, IDLES have taken on something of a “voice of a generation” title, with rallying calls for unity, stark vulnerability and a powerful, earth-moving post-punk sound. The Bristol quintet’s second album, Joy as an Act of Resistance, was nothing short of a sensation, capturing the hearts and minds of many in the UK and abroad. Therefore, their third studio effort was hotly anticipated, with fans and critics alike hoping for more of the same quick wit and critical but caring eye, along with the natural evolution of a band approaching a decade since their first EP released.

However, where once they bounded forwards, IDLES stumble and falter. Joe Talbot’s lyrics this time around are much more direct, foregoing metaphor and satire for straight ahead literacy in their delivery. This feels like an angrier record than the previous records, but it comes from a different place; an all-around more negative place. Much of “Joy” was uplifting, tackling issues with aggression and power, but in a sensitive way, Ultra Mono lacks the sensitivity and nuance. For example, “Carcinogenic”, while one of the better choruses on the record, speaks in pure terms about austerity, food banks, public spending cuts and the Grenfell tragedy like they’re being ticked off a list of “happening” political topics to get a reaction out of people. It has been said in other reviews as well, but it bears repeating; the past two records were absolutely political, but they left space in the politics for the audience to think about it, to pick apart the words and realise what it made them feel and think of when they hear it. This record is like a brick wall, there’s no space in the politics to be emotionally or mentally moved by what's being said, because it's totally face-value. I find myself moved by every word of “Danny Nedelko” or “Samaritans”, but there isn’t a word on Ultra Mono that moves me in the same way. IDLES slogan of “All is Love” seems to have left a little bit of the love behind this time.

That’s not to say, though, that this is a bad record at all. There are soaring moments on it that can almost make you forgive the shortcomings. While also lyrically lacking, the opening track “war” is absolutely stunning, a brutal and vivacious call to arms that can be forgiven its literal delivery were it the only track to do it, as it truly feels like the start of something enormous. The singles released in the build-up to the record also remain absolutely fantastic. The uplifting absurdity of “Mr. Motivator”, released just as COVID-19 lockdown hit with an excellent music video, keep the opening portion strong, with the corny but endearing and still powerful “all hold hands chase the pricks away” chorus ringing out. “Grounds” is the gut-punch follow-up, with the vitriol in the record starting to break through in the lyrics, but remaining earnest in its message to “Unify! Unify! Unify!”. That said, there was one line in this song that made me feel odd when I first heard it and still does now. That line “not a single thing has ever been mended, by you standing there and saying you’re offended”, caught me off-guard as being distinctly un-IDLES. It feels like yet more of the misdirected self-righteous anger that becomes overbearing. “Model Village” is my own personal favourite track, the cutting dissection of the pseudo-fascistic, tabloid-fuelled, totally unaware societies that reside all throughout England. The chorus is euphoric, powerful, and exactly what IDLES should sound like. An absolute highlight for me. An unexpected positive moment is the unusually tender “A Hymn” that strikes chords on loneliness and self-esteem, before the final track “Danke” leaves the album to end on a wonderful high-note, reminding us again of what IDLES can truly be.

Sonically, the album is unique. Hip-hop mastermind Kenny Beats took on production duties and the album was largely recorded at La Fayette studios just outside Paris, and it sounds, for lack of a better word, brutal. Jon Beavis is in fine form on the drums, instrumentally he is the highlight for me. The drum sound is tight, punchy and drives the record forward throughout every song with relentless ferocity. Throughout the record there are glitchy screeches, electronic wailing, layers upon layers of crunchy guitars that fill out the space in the mix, without leaving the listener feeling like their head is being crushed. It's what Jack White would have sounded like had he been born in Bristol. Mark Bowen’s lead guitar is more auxiliary, with his parts making up the majority of the aforementioned glitches and wails. Lee Kiernan’s rhythm guitar becomes centre-stage in terms of “normal” sounding guitar, pounding through the choruses and the newly crafted riffs, combining wonderfully with Dev and Beavis in the rhythm section to give a fantastic sense of urgency. Talbot’s lyrics aside, his vocal performance is one of pure passion. It has divided fans since the first teaser track was released, its raw energy and ad hoc feel with plenty of mistakes and breaks leaving some fans disappointed, while others were left adoring it. I fall into the latter camp. While I think at times the vocals get a little *too* sketchy, the chorus of “Model Village” could maybe have done with another take, but for the most part they add a great deal to the overall feel and sound. The chorus to “Reigns” is an especially good balance. The whole band chips in on backing vocal duties, with big group shouts from roomy spaces sounding like something straight off of a Black Flag record. Some reviews and reactions to this record called the sound “IDLES distilled”, but I’m not sure I’d agree with that. The sound is definitely IDLES, but this is a bigger leap in terms of progression of aural aesthetic than any of their previous works. At times the vocal breaks and wailing electronic moments can feel grating, but they’re always smoothed over by a hearty slab of thundering drums and guitar.

This album is brilliant to listen to, instrumentally powerful and impassioned at every angle, but it’s let down by misguided lyrical content. In an attempt to live up to their reputation of capturing the zeitgeist, IDLES have failed to remember that isn’t what they’re here for. A reputation like that happens by accident, and it feels like they’ve tried too hard to maintain it, rather than relax and let it maintain itself more naturally. This is not a bad album, it's a very good album, but it isn’t a great album, and that’s just ever so slightly disappointing.

By Harry Green

Instagram: @h.green_

Twitter: @hgreen91_

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