If there’s one thing we can safely say about Bristol’s IDLES, it’s that they have the ability to capture the public mood.
With their 2018 sophomore album, Joy As An Act Of Resistance, the band delved into Brexit-torn Britain, discussing misplaced patriotism (‘G.R.E.A.T.’) and the contribution of immigrants (‘Danny Nedelko’), alongside wider issues such as toxic masculinity (‘Samaritans’) and the dangerous popular press (‘Rottweiler’). Despite its typically abrasive punk sound, the positive energy of the record captured people’s collective imagination, and the album was a surprise hit, going to number five in the UK album chart.
With the early releases from third album Ultra Mono, though, IDLES have shown their recognition of the zeitgeist to be positively clairvoyant. ‘Mr Motivator’ came just as most of us desperately needed a pick-me-up during lockdown, and it was just the tonic, combining energising guitars, a fun and bouncy video, and lyrics – “Like Kathleen Hanna with bear claws grabbing Trump by the pussy” – that made us smile in ways many of us hadn’t done in months. It also fitted nicely with the sudden return of men in lycra to our screens, inspiring the good people to take on mass indoor exercise for the first time since the eighties.
‘Grounds’, meanwhile, was a powerful call-to-arms against racism and injustice, that just happened to be released right in the middle of June’s global racial injustice protests. With lyrics like “Not a single thing has ever been mended, by you standing there and saying you’re offended,” and “I raise my pink fist and say black is beautiful,” it was a perfect anthem for that moment.
Even as ‘Grounds’ was receiving its maiden play, on BBC Radio, and people were hearing the “do you hear that thunder?” refrain for the first time, a massive lightning storm made its way across most of the country. You just couldn’t make this stuff up.
Someone up there clearly approved.
This is just the way it is with IDLES, though. They just have that certain magic, that ability to be politically conscious but fun, to be abrasive but catchy, to be aware but off-the-wall. With the band having gathered such a huge following during the process of releasing and touring Joy As An Act Of Resistance, one would have thought that this decidedly unglamorous crew of Bristolians might struggle to live up to expectations. Instead, it just seems to have driven them to up the ante even further.
Any suggestion that the band might go for a more commercial sound with this record, however, is dispelled within about five-and-a-half seconds of hitting play. Where Joy… started off with the slow-burning ‘Colossus’, Ultra Mono opener, ‘War’, goes right for the throat. A typically fierce and direct anti-war statement, it is the sonic equivalent of a morning bombardment in the trenches. Awake and alert, are we now, soldier? Well, go get your pants on then, this is just the beginning.
By the time the listener has experienced the noise of ‘War’, the unfettered anger of ‘Grounds’, and the lively energy of ‘Mr Motivator’, they may already feel somewhat exhausted. There is no let-up, however, and thank goodness, because ‘Anxiety’ is an absolute cracker. Describing the titular condition, it starts as a mildly sad tale of being dumped, building into a crescendo as other factors pile on, and all the fear and self-doubt starts to spiral. It is a marvellous oral representation of how those feelings can escalate, delivered with typically wry IDLES humour.
There is a small breather at the beginning of ‘Kill Them With Kindness’, with Jamie Cullum’s calm piano intro – yes, really – but this is quickly replaced by full-on Rocket From The Crypt-style guitar, paced by Jon Beavis’ pounding drumbeat. ‘Model Village’, meanwhile, is a bit of a quirky track, one that might be a bit limp were it not for the booming chorus, and also the fact that everyone knows of a closed-minded and prejudiced small town like the one that is being described. A bit of satire never goes amiss, and IDLES are rather good at it.
The band channel the garage-rock guitar style of The Hives for ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’, a fierce condemnation of improper sexual behaviour: “This is a sawn off, for the cat-callers”. This is a topic that the band has long been passionate about, so it is no surprise to see singer Joe Talbot at his most fervent here, ably assisted by some feral backing vocals by Jehnny Beth. With the focus here clearly being on continued problems of this nature at gigs, the chorus imploring “Ne Touche pas moi! This is my dance space,” this song should be a clarion call for the live music industry to work to erase this problem once and for all.
Just when you thought this album couldn’t deliver further, along comes ‘Reigns’, a brutally dark indictment of the impact of Tory rule. Talbot sneers over Adam Devonshire’s sinister bassline in the verses, – “How does it feel to have shanked the working classes into dust? How does it feel to have won the war that nobody wants?” – before it explodes into pure anger in the chorus. IDLES have never shied away from their left-wing tendencies, but this is their most overt political statement yet, and it’s utterly brilliant. Bookmarked by two more firebrands in ‘Carcinogenic’ and ‘The Lover’, the album keeps up its pace impressively.
The album’s one slow(er) moment comes with the swirling melancholy of penultimate track ‘A Hymn’, and what a song it is. If anyone ever tells you that IDLES are nothing but a blunt instrument, this track is everything you need for an easy rebuttal. Beautifully measured and emotional, and with a simple but darkly effective guitar sound, this song of reflection and regret is right up there with the best that the band have ever written.
This truly is an exceptional record. Many will have thought that Joy As An Act Of Resistance would be the pinnacle of IDLES’ career, that they couldn’t possibly go any higher. Ultra Mono, though, is a significant step up, both musically and lyrically. The production, too, is exceptional; it was designed to give the feel of a hip-hop record, with Kenny Beats [JPEGMafia, Denzel Curry] having assisted with the programming on several tracks, all while retaining the feeling that the album is being performed live right next to you.
As great as Joy… was, its strength was in the message, with the music being a capsule by which to deliver it. With Ultra Mono, though, the music is front and centre, the driver, making the message travel that much further. The guitar sound is fuller and more powerful. Every song has its own identity, its own feel, and they don’t miss once – every track brings something essential. As impressive as the band’s fanbase already is, with December’s show at the 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace having sold out in less than 24 hours, this record will surely win many new converts. This is album of the year material, make no mistake.
Pre-order the record here, out 25th September via Partisan.