IDLES: Ultra Mono (Partisan) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, October 21st, 2020  

IDLES

Ultra Mono

Partisan

Sep 25, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


IDLES’ success did not come overnight. After toiling away in the underground for nearly a decade, the band broke with 2018’s Joy As An Act of Resistance, shooting the band into the height of modern rock success in its native England. The Bristol band found itself at the forefront of a rising post-punk revival, honing a unique blend of crushing instrumental pandemonium and relentless positivity and acceptance. As a result, IDLES came into 2020 with a larger and more devoted fanbase than ever. 

But with its success, the band has also gained no shortage of naysayers. If you are to believe its critics, IDLES is nothing more than a band of self-important, sloganeering, class tourists who have shouted their way to the top without saying anything substantial. With Ultra Mono IDLES takes on the unenviable task of contending with all of the above and, in true IDLES fashion, doubles down in every conceivable way. 

The record sounds immense, driving the already massive IDLES sound to the next level. Though IDLES has never been one for subtlety, where the band’s music previously could feel like a jackhammer, it has seemingly upgraded to bulldozers. The scale of what the band has in mind is fully on display in the opener “War.” The band comes barrelling out of the gates with its newest call to arms, shouting “This means war!/Anti-War!” The call to action continues on “Grounds” as the band sends a pointed message to the powers that be—“Do you hear that thunder?” frontman Joe Talbot asks. “That’s the sound of strength in numbers/I am I, unify!” 

The band does change the formula slightly on Ultra Mono with some synths adding punch to the call and response guitars and crushing drumming of “Grounds.” The slick modernized production work and additional beat programming from Kenny Beats also add to the propulsive, rhythmic stomp to these tracks. The band’s ambitious streak crops up later, with the dance punk critiques of nationalism on “Model Village.” The real surprise, though, is “A Hymn” which stands as the band’s best version of a downcast, simmering slowburner. The track is the perfect palette cleanser before returning to a pummelling, shouty closer with “Danke.” 

Despite its scale, Ultra Mono also provides the band’s most direct and pointedly political messages. Make no mistake, for IDLES, the war they sing of has long since begun. The band says as much in “Anxiety.” Talbot spits: “Our government hates the poor/Cold leaders, cold class war/Keeping drugs you can’t afford/So the poor can’t buy the cure.” Later with the brutal industrial cut “Reigns,” he questions, “How does it feel to have shanked the working classes into dust?/How does it feel to have won the war that nobody wants?” The instrumentals are similarly pointed with tense, repetitious structures and unison playing driving home Talbot’s every accusation towards a system that sees human life as expendable.

With the band’s political sensibilities well-established, the other half of the IDLES equation is the band’s unrelenting commitment to positivity and unity. “Kill Them With Kindness” is another statement of purpose in this respect. Opening on a lovely piano fake-out courtesy of Jamie Cullum, it quickly launches into a yelping vocal performance as the band encapsulates its positive punk approach—“Ain’t no doormats here/It doesn’t mean you have to bow or say your highness/Just kill them with kindness.” The general tenor of the record very much seems to be carpe diem. In fact, “seize the day” falls in with “I am I” and “Unify” as one of the band’s catchphrases on the record. Early in the record Talbot calls his followers to “Let’s seize the day/All join hands chase the pricks away” with “Mr. Motivator.” It may be a cheesy sentiment but there is an unabashed sincerity to the track that injects a joyful spirit into the record. If Talbot howling “YOU CAN DO IT” at the top of his lungs doesn’t put a smile on your face, what will?

Herein lies the beauty of the band’s oft-derided “sloganeering.” The band owns every inch of it, making it even more of a feature of their songwriting on Ultra Mono. The band also takes a moment on “The Lover” to answer its critics on the issue—“You say you don’t like our clichés/Our sloganeering and our catch phrases/I say love is like a freeway and/Fuck you, I’m a lover.” The approach undoubtedly pares down the lyrics, opting for memorability through repetition, and more often than not it works. The record is filled with quotable earworms, begging to be bellowed from moshpits, so much so that it can come off as bludgeoning on occasion. After all, you can’t get much more direct than Talbot and Jehnny Beth of Savages shouting “Consent!” on “Ne Touche Pas Moi.” But even with the very occasional miss the overall effect is an album full of universal, inclusive anthems. The simple lyrics, addictive rhythmic instrumentals, and showering positivity gives a sense that as long as you’re simultaneously as broken, pissed off, and loving as the band, you can find yourself in its music. 

It is easy to see why IDLES inspires such devoted fervor. The band’s form of catharsis via unity and moshpits has no equivalent on the modern rock scene. It may be easy to write off initially as preachy or reductive but the sharp, self-aware wit and incisive simplicity in the band’s best lyrics make it clear its members are no intellectual slouches. What is more, the band clearly believes in every word Talbot says. That authenticity and openness keep the band as magnetic as ever on its newest record. As Talbot’s recurring lyric declares, “I am I.” With Ultra Mono, IDLES owns every bit of that statement and is all the better for it. (www.idlesband.com)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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Average reader rating: 6/10



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