Packed with hard-hitting punches and a “love thy neighbour unless he’s a Tory” mentality, IDLES aim to prove they’re more than a group of middle-class posers, as their musical contemporaries would lead you to believe.
In times of great political, social and economic hardship, it is the artists of their time that can exemplify many in society’s yearning for systematic change and widespread anger at leaders and policies. However, to compare the music of John Lydon and Joe Strummer during the 1979 “Winter of Discontent” to the lyrics espoused by Bristol punk band IDLES’ third album Ultra Mono, or to simply label the album under genres of punk or post-punk, vastly undermines the sheer progression of modern contrarian culture as a whole. Yet IDLES’ attempt to reinvigorate and empower a modern leftist counterculture in a music scene which is entirely exempt from live performances and public exposure (with music currently banned altogether in pubs and bars) can’t help but stir a very personal and familiar sense of political dissatisfaction, once experienced with the likes of albums such as Never Mind The Bollocks or Inflammable Material.
With Ultra Mono IDLES have successfully produced their most abrasively loud and political album, which continues and expands on many issues shown within the lyrics of their mercury-prize nominated record, Joy as an Act of Resistance, and debut Brutalism. Frontman Joe Talbot consistently delivers with lyrics ranging from various pop culture references to UK class inequality and sexual consent, to his own personal response to criticism and backlash over the band’s use of alleged repetitive clichés, rhyming and spelling to fill in alleged gaps in writing.
In the lead up to the release of Ultra Mono, riding off a highly successful 2018 and 2019, IDLES were widely praised and celebrated by mainstream music critics for speaking on issues alluding to class, identity politics and masculinity. Yet criticism from bands such as Sleaford Mods and Fat White Family labelling IDLES as “middle-class boobs” has created a subsequent divide between fans of various artists over the legitimacy of Talbot’s leftist sincerity. Sure enough, much of the criticism over IDLES’ alleged championing of “US social import social justice” scorning of “small towns that haven’t quite managed to adopt the same middle class metropolitan point of view” can be observed on songs like Model Village which blast blue collar, Brexit-supporting, far-right “gammon” to the point of almost cringing ridicule. I can see both points of view. In fact, I believe it’s extremely beneficial to the UK’s post-punk/alternative music scene for these individually talented bands to disagree on political issues. When manifesting such obnoxiously political lyrics, it’s important for one band’s word not to be observed as punk gospel. However, from a personal-political point of view, IDLES are preaching systematic social change to the already converted. I agree with almost all their beliefs and enjoy Talbot’s unapologetic, “fuck you” vocal delivery.
In terms of a consistent sound, Ultra Mono sounds like the inbred byproduct of Brutalism and Joy as an Act of Resistance having loud hate-sex on a stormy night, while a Ken Loach film, accompanied by some late 90s Californian hardcore, plays in the background. The forebodingly threatening guitars, reminiscent of both previous albums, yet confident in their own identity, are a constant staple throughout the 12 tracks and 42 minutes. Analysing the collective work from an emotional standpoint, there is a constant sense of anger and frustration that effectively juxtaposes the “love thy neighbour unless he’s a Tory” lyrical content, leading to a jumpy and, at times, empowering atmosphere throughout.
Analysing each song individually however, the strongest tracks that stand out to me, are War, Anxiety, Reigns and A Hymn. In the case of War, the track acts as a highly effective introduction to the album, being blatantly antiwar, an issue most people can agree with. I particularly enjoyed the empowering, vulnerable chorus on Anxiety, where Talbot proudly proclaims, “I have got anxiety, it has got the best of me.” This continues on from songs on their previous albums like Samaritans and Mother, which weaponise an abrasively masculine punk sound, effectively contrasting the anti-toxic masculinity lyrics. In my opinion, Reigns is perhaps IDLES’ most powerfully political anthem yet. The song successfully ridicules blue blood conservatism and monarchism stating, “How does it feel to have shanked the working classes into dust”. In a time where many are struggling to maintain job security in a semi-lockdown Britain, where chancellors are effectively telling artists and musicians to seek employment in other sectors, IDLES provide a stark reminder that “you can do it” in Mr Motivator and to “kill them with kindness.”
The album begins to conclude on A Hymn, which I feel could have been an effective ending with its utilisation of imperfect cadence, making you think there’ll be a loud and dramatic ending after a slow and harmonic build up. Yet Danke functions well at finishing the album, reminding me of Rottweiler with its jarring guitars and chilling “heys” throughout. On a side note, I also appreciated the Daniel Johnston lyrics, working well as a brief tribute to the recently deceased, cult musician.
Overall, Ultra Mono is certainly IDLES loudest and most political work yet. Ignoring criticism from their UK contemporary artists functions well for the band that effectively uses their platform to preach positive change and wilful acceptance of those with different opinions. Stylistically, the overall sound and noise hits you like a giant, pink inflatable ball in the face leaving quite an impression even after a dozen listens, possibly making this my favourite work of theirs yet.
Overall Rating: 8/10
Top Track: Reigns