ALBUM REVIEW: IDLES – Ultra Mono (Partisan Records)

This is the long-awaited third album by IDLES, the Bristol five-piece who bulldozed their way into the mainstream with their first two records, earning plenty of accolades and a few awards along the way.

Their 2017 debut Brutalism marked them out as a major talent, and the following year’s Joy As An Act Of Resistance turned things up a notch, making them the spokesmen for a generation, in some people’s eyes.

With such status comes responsibility to deliver, and IDLES have done that in spades. Ultra Mono is 43 minutes of barely-contained rage, railing against some of the most pressing social concerns of the day.

Across 12 tracks the band hammer home the blunt social commentary of their previous work, with their now-standard lyrical themes of inclusivity, class, gender inequality, nationalism, community, and toxic masculinity all present and correct.

IDLES. Pic by Tom Ham.

And if you thought the first two records were intense, wait ’til your ears cop a load of this one. After all, this is IDLES we’re talking about; a band whose mantra seems to be ‘Why use a nutcracker to crack a nut when a sledgehammer will do?’.

Frontman Joe Talbot says they’re not a punk band. He’s right, they’re much more than that. Their use of repetition and bludgeoning riffs borrows from post-punk and hardcore too, but who needs labels? This is essential music, whatever you choose to call it.

Their cards are laid on the table with opening track War, which is the sound of a band going into battle, all guns blazing. It’s followed by Grounds, a song about self-belief which asks “Do you hear that thunder?/That’s the sound of strength in numbers”.

Mr Motivator, one of the singles released to promote the album, is an anthem to positivity which has Talbot conjuring up images such as “Like Connor McGregor with a Samurai sword on roller blades”, over a cacophony of strident guitar, pounding drums and driving bass.

Joe Talbot of Idles at Rebellion Festival in Blackpool in 2018. Pic: Gary Welford.

Those of a nervous disposition might do well to avoid Anxiety, where he hollers: “I have got anxiety/It has got the best of me” over another great grumbling bassline from Adam Devonshire.

You’re almost lulled into a false sense of security by the gentle piano intro of Kill Them With Kindness, before a punchy riff and rhythmic drums kick in, followed by Talbot barking like a dog, while his maniacal laughter at the start of Model Village, the pick of the singles, sees him channelling Johnny Rotten ‘s Anarchy In The UK chuckle.

It’s a scathing critique of the kind of undesirables you’ll find in Little England: “Got my head kicked in in the village/There’s a slot of pink skin in the village,” and “Hardest man in the world in the village/Said he got with every girl in the village.”

Ne Touche Pas Moi (it means ‘don’t touch me’) raises the bar even higher; full of swaggering, slashing guitar from Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, it sees Talbot and guest vocalist Jehnny Beth from Savages yelling “Consent, consent, consent!” in lung-busting fashion. If we’re ever allowed to go to proper gigs again, this song will be a moshpit smash.

This whole middle section of the album is IDLES at their abrasive best, and Carcinogenic, set against Jon Beavis’s propulsive drumbeat and more insistent bass, is another contender for standout track, with searing couplets like “Where were you when the ship sank?/Probably not queueing for a food bank.”

Idles performing live at Le Bataclan. Pic: Lindsay Melbourne.

Reigns addresses the class system, asking “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 intensity eases off a bit as the album approaches its final stretch, with The Lover and the brooding A Hymn slowing things down. The latter, stretching out over more than five minutes, is a welcome change of pace and another of the record’s high spots, intoning “I want to be loved, everybody does…”

It’s a record that makes you feel like a punchbag, like you’ve been foolish enough to accept a square go with ‘Joe Cal-fucking-Zaghe’. But as soon as the closing Danke reaches its abrupt end, you’ll want to get right back into the ring and experience it all over again. 9/10.

Gary Welford owner