REVIEW: IDLES – Ultra Mono

Let’s seize the day

All hold hands, chase the pricks away

This is one of my most anticipated albums of the year. Ever since I listened to “Danny Nedelko”, I was immediately drawn in by IDLES passion and raw energy. I was fascinated by their ability to create bold, straight songs while incorporating creative and unique ideas into their sound. Writing political songs is a difficult endeavour and many bands and musicians fail to embed messages into their lyrics in a clever way that doesn’t make you cringe. IDLES manages to do just that. They address a wide range of social issues and topics, like class disparities, capitalist ideology, and toxic masculinity. However, they do it in a smart way that shows a high degree of artistry. As their repertoire includes both songs that are blasts of fury, as well as tracks with an incredible amount of positivity and uplifting spirit, IDLES have become one of my favourite bands of all time. Obviously, this makes me quite partial but I’ll try to give them a review that’s as unbiased as possible.

“War” is a perfect choice for an opening track. It exhibits all qualities that I like about IDLES songs and it most certainly sounds like what you’d expect from a song titled “War”. It could be Joe Talbot’s martial shouts that sound like someone running towards battle, his onomatopoeic gun shots or the descending guitar sounds that have eerily resemble howling Stukas diving from the sky. All this while the drums are marching steadily with vigour and energy. This creates a driving, loud and powerful with a foreboding sense of chaos.

The second track “Grounds” is another example of IDLES’s musical ingenuity. The main riff, which the song revolves around, is a short, glitchy guitar sequence. As Mark Bowen explains, this is basically just him playing a single note on the guitar, running it through a delay pedal and pitch shifter. It’s simple, yet it’s a jam-packed, catchy and interesting tune. Again, Talbot’s lyrics and his primal singing style perfectly complement the experience.

The following track “Mr. Motivator” lives up to its name as it’s uplifting, energising and, indeed, motivating. This is achieved using the simple yet effective method of driving drums and sweet guitar bends. The hook, in particular, has a lovely post-punk vibe to it. Moreover, the climactic conclusion of the song which comes after an intense build-up of Talbot screaming “You’re Joe Cal-fucking-zaghe” is nothing but amazing. Speaking of lyrics, “Mr. Motivator” is one barrage of witty and entertaining lines. For an impression of this, just read through the first verse:

Like Conor McGregor with a samurai sword
On roller blades
Like Vasily Lomachenko
After four pints of Gatorade
Like Kathleen Hanna with bear claws
Grabbing Trump by the pussy
Like Delia Smith after ten chardonnays
Making me a nice cookie

“Anxiety” is another straightforward IDLES song. I love the driving drums, the heavy bass line, and the way the song crescendos into pure madness with a cacophony of screeching guitars and multi-layered vocals. This is followed by a quiet piano interlude which becomes the intro of “Kill Them With Kindness”. It’s certainly a break in the track list, especially as it is oddly faint. It reminds me of Mad Max – Fury Road where, after half an hour of fast pace action sequences, the first dialogue feels like a moment of relief and lets you take a breath. However, the piano piece only lasts for a short 30 seconds and is interrupted by grooving drums and guitars turning “Kill Them With Kindness” into a catchy tune on Ultra Mono.

The same is true of the next song “Model Village”. The band plays around with a lot of different effects on this album. We get ping-pong-panned guitars with occasional phasers, as well as funky delays on the vocals. The guitars stand out in particular on this song. Bowen and Kiernan have really outdone themselves here. I also love the dirty, crunchy guitar solo towards the end of the track.

The following track “Ne Touche Pas Moi” (“Don’t Touch Me”) is a feature with Savages’s Jehnny Beth. It’s a powerful and angry pamphlet against sexual harassment. Beth emphatically shouts “Ne touche pas moi” during the chorus alternating with Talbot’s “This is my/your dance space”. This song is the perfect embodiment of IDLES ability to write political songs with a clear message delivered via clever lyrics that are simple without being dull or cringey. Unfortunately, sexual harassment towards women is an all too prevalent phenomenon. Accordingly, the lyrics of this song have the clarity of a punk song. You can feel the anger and the fury in both Talbot’s and Beth’s voices when they repeatedly yell “Consent” as if hammering it into the heads of the pesky toxic pervs that women see themselves confronted with.

We stay in a political realm with “Carcinogenic”, where IDLES are addressing social inequality. While the focus lies Britain, poverty and marginalisation are described as a problem that is inherent to capitalist society in generally and is compared to an ever-growing cancer that is poisoning social cohesion. 

The next song, “Reigns”, is a lament of class division between the blue-blooded nobility and aristocracy who are stifling the economic freedom and possibilities of the working class. I do like the sentiment of the song, but I do think a bit more variation within the lyrics would have made the song even better. Yet, it is as simple as it is strong. With the song “The Lover” Talbot tried to write “the most honest love song” he could come up with. It’s a loud at punchy song with overdriven guitars that build up like walls.

Moving towards the end of the album, “A Hymn” is the only slow burner in the listing. It starts off with wailing distorted guitars transitioning into a tremolo-picked guitar, then drenched in a whole lot of reverb and a steady bass line. This song might contain some of the album’s most intriguing and interesting lyrics. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what it’s about. I would interpret it as an expression of a constant feeling of nostalgia. Talbot is singing about the banalities of everyday life and how they can make you feel melancholic. This is indicated by lines such as “Hot Zumba classes at the new church” or “Teletext has a place in my heart”. It’s a collection of flash bulb memories that trigger a feeling of sadness. Talbot views this as a universal human emotion that everyone knows, similar to the need to be loved (“I want to be loved, Everybody does”). This is stressed by the subtitles in the music video that show lines of the song in different languages. Thus, this song addresses a phenomenon that transcends language barriers.

The album closes like it began, loud and noisy. Glitchy guitars, banging drums and shouted gang vocals make this a chaotic and intense closing track. As the title “Danke” suggests, it’s a thank you song delivered in a very IDLES fashion. Notably, Talbot added the line “True love will find you in the end” which is an homage to Daniel Johnston who passed away in 2019.

Ultra Mono sounds similar to previous IDLES albums. You can’t place the band into any particular genre, but they do employ elements of punk, post-punk, alternative and indie rock in their songs. However, while they stay true to their own characteristic sound, they manage to incorporate a lot of new ideas that do make the album an interesting listen. With just one calmer song in the track list, the album is a wild, thrilling ride that radiates heaps of energy. Each member of the band brings out the best of their instrument. The guitars sound crisp, the drums have a lot of punch and the bass sounds dirty. Furthermore, the album is produced and mixed very well, which gives it a very cohesive and tight sound.

I’ve already elaborated on some of the themes on the album. As with earlier albums IDLES, don’t shy away from comments on society at large. But they’re not taking cheap pot-shots which make them seem like a “fake-woke” band. Their punk influences are more apparent some tracks than others. On these tracks, you get Talbot shouting paratactic slogans but it blends nicely with their more nuanced lyrics. Their topics often circle around economic and social injustice, gender issues or personal psychology. Often these are viewed through an egalitarian, humanist, and somewhat Marxist lens. While we do get aggressive, angry songs, they’re never destructive or nihilistic. In fact, one of the things that draws me towards this band is their invincible positivity.

I’ve been looking forward to this album for months and IDLES have delivered. I got what I anticipated: a gripping and uplifting album packed with constructive rage, a punk spirit and a whole lot of style and entertaining ideas. I don’t feel the need to skip any of the songs on this album because I identify with many of the things that are addressed on this album which will stick with me for a long time to come.

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