In Review: IDLES - Ultra Mono

Despite its pre-packaged rallying cries and at times falling short on political inspiration, the third LP from IDLES is still just as loud and angry as the times demand.
Posted: 24 September 2020 Words: Miles Ellingham

IDLES have become more than a band. Their political call-to-arms, their reinvigoration of the punk genre, their bloodthirsty sonic war on misogyny, racism and austerity policy captivated people – and we needed them, as Britain tilted towards far-right tyranny, we needed IDLES. However, the Bristol group are discovering that acclaim is a double-edged sword. Although their third LP Ultra Mono brims with signature ferocity, somehow, in our 2020 hell-scape, it doesn’t quite have the same burning feeling of necessity about it.

Musically, Ultra Mono, picks up where Joy as an Act of Resistance left off. There’s an energy to it that’s high voltage and unremitting. Opener ‘War’ explodes out the gate, mimicking the metallic fury of its namesake. It’s a song that sounds like shrapnel – Mark Bowen’s guitar is a flaming F-22 coming down to earth. The rest of the album essentially follows on from there. The sound of the project carries through like a live wire, Talbot’s lyrics read like a drunk manifesto drilling a new political declaration into each song. The ruling classes are guillotined in ‘Reins’, misogynist cat-callers take a sawn-off shotgun to the face in ‘Ne Touche Pas Mois’, and austerity politics is railed against in ‘Carcinogenic’. 

Ultra Mono is also well distilled in the added influence of Kenny Beats – the acclaimed hip-hop producer behind JPEGMAFIA, Rico Nasty and Vince Staples. IDLES frontman, Joe Talbot, has long cited his appreciation for the hip hop genre, and his collaboration with Beats helps to capture Ultra Mono’s oppressive atmosphere. “Every single track has been Kenny-fied, and that’s a fact,” admitted Talbot in a recent interview with The Face. “It’s that Phil Spector kind of philosophy – obviously a very different practice – but creating a new sound to reinvigorate the art of the rock record.”

IDLES may be best known for their barbed-wire sound, but the most exciting song on the record is, interestingly, ‘A Hymn’, because it bucks the trend, baring a vulnerable soul as it describes the monotony of insecure living. Over glitching guitar sounds comes the continual refrain “I wanna be loved / Everybody does” and “Shame / Shame / Shame”, all mixed up with stories of Zumba classes and losing weight for the wedding. It’s tender and it’s wretched and it’s beautiful. 

But in spite of some of the deafening praise currently fawning over Ultra Mono – “Their magnum opus!”, “A single giant bullethead” – it  is by no means devoid of pitfalls. Let's all calm down a moment. Yes, IDLES have set a dauntingly high bar for themselves, but, in large part, Ultra Mono is a feint but noticeable step down from previous albums Joy… and Brutalism

NME’s Jordan Bassett put it best, “If 'Joy As An Act Of Resistance' was a call to unify the masses, this is their unapologetic bid to calcify the faithful.” Bassett highlights the problem perfectly. There’s a conceptual trade-off that seems to have gone on behind the scenes; the poetic ambiguity of earlier tracks such as ‘Mother’ and ‘Colossus’ is exchanged in Ultra Mono for an iron first with which to pummel the slogans through. “My mother worked sixteen hours six days a week” wasn’t a slogan, but it became one – that’s what genius lyricism can do. But that process isn’t really present here, instead the rallying cries come pre-packaged. Occasionally, the sloganeering will reach fever pitch and make important messaging sound almost trivial – less the sound of ‘A thousand sons’ and more the grunt of someone snorting a line of coke off the Grundrisse.

Some of the tracks also fall short on the level of politics itself. The sixth track on the album, ‘Model Village’, sets its sites on the twee, pastoral lives of Little England’s gammon. The song rattles off various tropes of gammony village life. “A lot of nine fingered boys in the village”..."He's not a racist, but", in the village,” calls Talbot, “Homophobes by the tonne in the village.” Obviously, being myself a bourgeois, metropolitan socialist from London, I know it’s true that everyone outside the North Circular is a pink racist, but how might ‘Model Village’ sound to an adolescent potential comrade from said villages, perhaps one with an IDLES poster on the back of their door. 

Criticism aside, the main reason Ultra Mono falls short is because of the high bar the band has set for themselves. Ultra Mono might still the best album this half of the summer. It’s louder and angrier than ever – and in an era of rampant corporate greed, rainforest fires, authoritarianism, classism and police brutality, that’s a large part of what many of us desire. 

Ultra Mono is out tomorrow (Friday 25th September) on Partisan Records. 

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