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Review: Idles - 'Ultra Mono'

"Fast, vicious and unapologetically blunt, Ultra Mono is like taking a Doc Marten to the face - in the best possible way... a kinetic and cathartic burst of fuzz, roars and kicks"

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Image Credit: Sonic PR, 2020

Over the past few years, no band has captivated music fans quite like Idles. Love them or hate them, people are talking about them and for good reason.

Their first mainstream success, Brutalism, was a vicious and electrifying listen that combined punchy instrumentals with wry, bitter and socially conscious lyrics to create one of the most memorable albums of 2017. Going from strength to strength, a year later they released Joy As An Act Of Resistance. The production and instrumentals packed more punch, the lyrics more venom and humour and the performances more potency. This was the album that pushed the band to stratospheric heights within the UK music scene, attracting a whole new wave of adoring fans, while putting them under the scrutiny of armchair critics and (dare I say it?) snobs trying to find any way to pile on guitar music’s new golden boys.

Now with the release of their third project Ultra Mono, it seems all eyes are on Idles.

It’s only been a day since release but already the discourse surrounding this album is more divisive than any I’ve seen in recent years. Fans and critics bitterly divided, fighting below the line on Twitter or through ever-sneering blog posts. Is Ultra Mono the derivative and lazy effort certain publications and Nottingham based hip hop/punk duos would argue it is? No. Is Ultra Mono the life changing, incredibly deep and powerful album that the die hard fans would like you to believe it is? Also no.

Believe it or not, Ultra Mono is just an album. A very good album at that, but nothing more and nothing less.

And that’s no bad thing.

Fast, vicious and unapologetically blunt, Ultra Mono is like taking a Doc Marten to the face - in the best possible way. It’s heavier, punchier and packing more grunt than any of the band’s previous work. The spiralling guitars and cascading drums of tracks like ‘War’, ‘Anxiety’ and ‘Mr Motivator’ hit you with more brute force, more energy than anything the band has released before, a kinetic and cathartic burst of fuzz, roars and kicks. At times it can be breathtaking.

Other tracks like ‘Grounds'' ride in a Yeezus inspired groove where Talbot’s vocals bounce between cutting guitars and that almighty low end of drum and bass combo. It feels claustrophobic at times, as you feel your speakers are about to be blown out by the sheer, relentless cacophony that is squeezed into each track and I love it.

Nothing about this album is subtle and it really doesn’t need to be.

The lyrics of ‘War’ (“Clack-clack, clack-a-clang clang! That's the sound of the gun going bang-bang!”) won’t exactly need a Genius video to decipher and there’s a few other lines across the album that feel a little forced, but that’s not really the point of it all.

These tracks are bold and slightly simplistic but packing a sense of feeling and affect quite unlike anything else - it makes for a thoroughly cathartic listen. I don’t care if the lyrics are simple (they are). I don’t care if the politics and nihilism are surface level (they also are). I just get lost the absolute chaos and fun of it all.

Ultra Mono is not the incisive, razor sharp commentary that many expected it to be. It's not dissecting problems with a scalpel, it's smashing the shit out of them with a sledgehammer.

Nowhere is this clearer than on ‘The Lover,’ where Talbot directly addresses this criticism: “you say you don't like my clichés, our sloganeering and our catchphrase” he chants before descending into a chorus which is just really him shouting “I want to cater for the haters, eat shit”. The band knew this album was going to be divisive and just embraced it, weathering the storm of criticism with heads held high and middle fingers held higher.

Honestly, I can’t knock it.

It would be remiss to suggest that all the lyrics are merely blunt politics, because buried amongst the shouty refrains there are some truly great moments. ‘Model Village’ packs in plenty of humorous snipes at suburban British life and the toxicity of small town mentality. ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’ invites an important discussion of consent and live culture, even if it does break down into primal chanting towards the latter end of the song. Across the album mental health, masculinity, identity politics and immigration are all thrown into the mix. To dismiss these ideologies are merely 'woke snowflakes' is to do the album a disservice because its ideas are as relevant and cutting as the discussions of the Conservatives and the NHS on Brutalism and the Brexit narratives on Joy.

As one would expect from Idles, this album has a lot of heart and always has it in the right place.

Other tracks like ‘Carcinogenic’ and ‘Reigns’ sit firmly in classic Idles territory. Driving bassline, check. Lightning bolt drumming, check. Vicious political lyrics, check. Guitar madness, check. It’s a tried and tested formula and here it works well, although I find that they don’t quite stand as tall as some of the bigger, heavier and more rounded singles such as the gargantuan 'Mr Motivator'.

Then there's the final track 'Danke', which spins a Daniel Johnson chorus over a driving post-punk instrumental in a 'it really shouldn't work but does' moment'.

There’s also more subdued cuts like the brooding ‘A Hymn’ which trades in the booming tirade of fuzz and fury for a more restrained approach, a gentler tone akin to 'June' on Joy. At first listen, it might feel a little out of place on an album so tightly packed with balls-to-the-wall bangers but it’s one of my favourite cuts and one of the tracks I listen to most in isolation of the album.

The collaborative nature of Ultra Mono also brings with it a few surprises.

Superstar producer Kenny Beats brings a booming, almost claustrophobic aesthetic to tracks, hip hop sensibilities colliding brilliantly with Idles’ acerbic and unique stylings to create tracks like the blistering 'Grounds'. This combined with appearances from everyone’s mum’s favourite pianist Jamie Cullum, musical polymath Warren Ellis (Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds), Jehnny Beth (Savages) and David Yow (The Jesus Lizard) bring some interesting moments of fusion between the artists and lead to some truly brilliant moments such as Talbot and Beth’s vocals layering and echoing in the towering choruses of ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’.

This might not be an album for everyone, and I can understand some of the criticism levelled at it, even if I don’t agree with it. But when you get past the simplicity of the lyrics and surface level ideologies, there is a lot of feeling, potency and fun to find in this album and fuck me - the instrumentals are stunning.

By the end of my first listen I loved Ultra Mono. By the second, I started to see some of the cracks but loved it all the same. Now I’m on something like the fifth or sixth listen and I have no intention of stopping. For all its simplicity and occasional imperfections, I can’t help but admire what Idles have done with this album and love the project they ended up with.


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