IDLES – ‘Ultra Mono’ review: a blistering attempt to calcify the faithful

The Bristol punks’ third album is a juggernaut that roars through sarcasm, defiance, compassion and controversy. It's a bumpy ride, but one worth taking

“You say you don’t like our clichés, frontman Joe Talbot sings on IDLES’ gargantuan new song ‘The Lover’, Our sloganeering and our catchphrase / I say, ‘Love is like a freeway’ and / ‘Fuck you – I’m a lover.’”

READ MORE: IDLES: “Loads of people don’t fucking like us”

Yes, the Bristol band’s third album, ‘Ultra Mono’, is a breakneck ride that roars through sarcasm, defiance, compassion and controversy. 2017 debut ‘Brutalism’, with its lopsided tunes and comically obscure lyrics, introduced the five-piece as endearing oddballs of the punk and post-punk revival, while 2018’s righteous ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ coursed with such high-voltage energy that it came close to igniting an actual movement. Buzzing with endlessly quotable lines about self-love, immigration and the suffocating patriarchy, here was a record on which they urged for “unity” and insisted, as per their motto, that “all is love”.

Well, the feeling wasn’t totally mutual, and the band have become divisive. Some accuse them of pushing empty platitudes, a charge that frontman Joe Talbot has responded to by insisting his professed desire for social change really comes from within. Or, as he puts it on recent singles ‘Grounds’ and ‘Mr. Motivator’: “I am I.” ‘Ultra Mono’ is IDLES cubed, and isn’t engineered to win them new converts. It’s vacuum-packed with more slogans, more weird pop culture references, more unembarrassed statements of intent. If ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ was a call to unify the masses, this is their unapologetic bid to calcify the faithful.
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Opener ‘War’ thrums with a militaristic bassline, bursts of static guitar and Talbot’s onomatopoeic vocal imitation of a knife wound: “Whaching! That’s the sound of the sword going in!” You thought his lyrics were too obvious before? He’ll show you obvious. On the glitchy, confrontational ‘Grounds’, he announces, “I smell the blood of a million sons / A million daughters from a hundred thousand guns,” before rallying up these IDLES believers: “Do you hear that thunder? That’s the sound of strength in numbers.”

The wiry ‘Mr. Motivator’ (easily the worst song on the album) sees him adopt a similar tactic: “Let’s seize the day / All hold hands / Chase the pricks away.” Sure, Talbot and the gang have built a wall around themselves and their followers, but also spend about half the record peering over at the hostile world outside, before lobbing a few flares in its general direction.

On the propulsive ‘Carcinogenic’, Talbot lacerates elites “over-working nurses and teachers / Whilst you preach austerity”. ‘Reigns’, with its electronic squalls and dissonant sax (courtesy of Bad Seed Warren Ellis, who joined the band at La Frette Studios just outside Paris), barrels along at a thousand knots as the frontman seethes at the ruling classes: “How does it feel to have blue blood coursing through your veins?” Their sonic rage is leant a taut, airless quality thanks to input from hip-hop producer Kenny Beats, who has helped to craft a claustrophobic atmosphere that at once captures IDLES’ newfound insularity and the oppressive nature of modern Britain, where wealth and connections are pre-paid tickets to the top.

“There is a class war and the working classes are being chewed up and spat out by the one per cent,” Talbot said in the punks’ recent NME cover story. “There are food banks in this country. There is a complete disregard for human welfare.” Later, guitarist Mark Bowen explained that IDLES “want equality and to further [it] in whatever way we can – through our art.”

It’s exactly the kind of political sermonizing that will make detractors’ eyes roll out of their heads. Another charge levelled at the band is that they embody the kind of macho posturing they claim to revile, but this is perhaps to miss the point a bit. While the (vocally) self-proclaimed feminists have been fairly chastised for not having enough non-male support acts, it’s also true that IDLES shows create opportunities for blokes to throw their arms around one another and chant about toxic masculinity being bad, diversity being good and change being possible.

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Harmful, old-fashioned ideas about masculinity still abound, men taught that emotion is somehow shameful or embarrassing (and suicide remains the biggest cause of death for men under 45 in the UK). If those blokes can go to an IDLES gig and scream and shout and let it all out – whatever works, right? The group have now also vowed to channel their positivity elsewhere by taking a more diverse set of acts with them on future tours.

This record fuses the first album’s goofy sense of humour with ‘Joy…’’s brazen manifesto for a healthier society. Despite their imperfections and the often justified criticism, IDLES are ultimately a good thing. The band want to take you on a trip and for you to enjoy the ride, and for the destination to be serene. Hold on tight.

Details

  • Release date: September 25
  • Record label: Partisan Records
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