Arts Reviews

Album Review: IDLES – Ultra Mono

Myron Winter-Brownhill

IDLES have created more of their trademark energetic post-punk that feels part of a unified vision, but all that chest-beating can leave it’s bruises.

Joe Talbot and company have found huge success in a relatively short span of time, culminating in 2018’s ‘Joy as an act of Resistance’. The Bristol band’s second album shouted progressive politics down your ear canal in one anthem after another – ‘Danny Nedelko’ being one standout, and ‘I’m Scum’ even featuring on Peaky Blinders. Their simple yet powerful aesthetic that never lets you catch your breath proved a hit, and set the stakes high for IDLES’ third release: ‘Ultra Mono’.

The band released four promising singles prior to release that showed they were sticking largely to the sound they have cultivated over the past few years with this album. ‘Mr Motivator’ has Talbot sounding utterly incensed about the fact that ‘You can do it! Yes you can!’ over a riff with infectious energy. The often absurd lyrics of this track (‘like David Attenborough clubbing seal clubbers with LeBron James’) manages to capture a carefree joy that does the title of their previous album justice.

Standout single ‘Model Village’ may well be the best track on the album. A critique of a certain type of Little England narrow mindedness, it isn’t the subtlest of joints. Nonetheless, the song succeeds through its wry sense of humour – Talbot’s vocal delivery, punctuated by wild ad libs and springy riff, punctuate such on the nose lines as ‘I see a lot of gammon in the village’. ‘Model Village’ is another example of IDLES doing what IDLES does best.

It becomes clear that those targeted by Talbot are done so precisely because they don’t want to unify

Both of these singles represent the central theme of ‘Ultra Mono’, evident right from the title: unity, both within and across identities. Take ‘Grounds’ and its call to ‘unify’, and celebration of ‘strength in numbers’. At first, it seemed counterintuitive to mount an assault on small-town working class mindsets on ‘Model Village’, only to support that same class on ‘Carcinogenic’ (‘Working people down to the bone on their knees 9 to 5 every day of the week is… Carcinogenic), until it becomes clear that those targeted by Talbot are done so precisely because they don’t want to unify, to celebrate both similarity and difference.

‘Ultra Mono’ sustains terrific energy throughout, but this can hide a lack of depth. I can’t help but think that ‘Ultra Mono’’s opener, ‘War’, deserved a little longer in the oven. The first verse is almost entirely onomatopoeia – ‘Clack-clack-clack a clang-clang, that’s the sound of the gun going bang bang’. On its own this works well to raise the imagery of war – Talbot has long since proven his ability to infuse his vocals with physicality and emotion – especially alongside the guitar that sounds like it could be an instrument of war itself.

However, the song hardly goes anywhere beyond these rudimentary first steps. This underdeveloped first track is a far cry from ‘Joy’’s opening, ‘Colossus’, and while its instrumentals are certainly a supercharged start to the album, ‘War’ does nothing to make itself memorable beyond that.

Jamie Cullum’s piano intro, which serves as a point of contrast against the punchy, bass-filled guitar

‘Kill Them with Kindness’ suffers from a more severe form of ‘War’’s malady, with symptoms including such lazy, mediocre lyrics as ‘Gna na na na na gnaw, said the beaver to the dam’. I’m just going to leave that there, and instead mention Jamie Cullum’s piano intro, which serves as a point of contrast against the punchy, bass-filled guitar (possibly thanks to Kenny Beats, who has production credits) that will explode from your speakers afterward.

‘A Hymn’, near to the end of the album, sits on the moodier side of post-punk as a sign that IDLES have a little more range than the rest of this album might suggest, with its vulnerable refrain ‘I wanna be loved/ everybody does’. It is one of the only slow-burn tracks in the band’s discography, and it has been pulled off surprisingly well.

IDLES are still largely doing what they’ve found success doing thus far. ‘Ultra Mono’ is not quite their best output, but it will likely satisfy those who are looking for more post-punk bangers. Its a great time, equal parts joyous exuberance and righteous anger, all kept afloat by a thunderous rhythm section (plus a random saxophone on one track). But beyond that, and despite fairly consistent themes of love, unity, and acceptance, ‘Ultra Mono’ can appear half-baked and disappointingly unadventurous.

Myron Winter-Brownhill

Featured image courtesy of UT Connewitz Photo Crew via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-articles images courtesy of @idlesband via Instagram. No changes made to these images.

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