Album review: Ultra Mono – IDLES
Ollie Leader De Saxe print music editor reviews Idles’ latest album.
The first thing that hits you about Ultra Mono is how angry Joe Talbot sounds. The IDLES frontman has always sounded like he’s been chain smoking cigars before washing it down with pint of gravel, but on this third album he sounds genuinely unhinged. “Whaching! That’s the sound of the sword going in” shrieks Talbot on grizzled opener ‘War’ against a plummeting guitar lead and pummelling drum blasts. Even the silliness of what he’s shouting doesn’t detract from the rage. This a record with something to say, and it’s not using its indoor voice.
If anything, this sense of going off the rails with all the subtly of a high-speed bullet train is matched on every aspect of the record. Ultra Mono is IDLES distilled and concentrated, doubling down on everything that has defined their career so far. The gnarled guitars are freakier and noisier, the bass is even thicker, the production is even more gloomy and oppressive. It’s an almost suffocating experience that doesn’t let up from the moment you press play, the brief piano interlude that kicks off ‘Kill them with kindness’ being one of only a few moments that allows you to gasp for air before being dragged back into the pantheon of austerity ghouls and spectral racists that haunt the hyper-confrontational posturing of Talbot’s lyrics.
I don’ think I’m spoiling anything when I say if you disliked IDLES before, then you’re absolutely gonna despise this record, and if you’re a long-standing member of the AF gang, then this is all your Christmases come at once with a little labour rose on top. The aforementioned opening track is the immediate marmite moment. Even I, a self-proclaimed IDLES fan, am not particularly convinced by lines like “Clack-clack, clack-a-clang clang! That’s the sound of the gun going bang-bang”, which make you feel like you’re stumbling through Balamory after a particularly violent Proletarian revolution, rather than a rallying cry for those disenfranchised by war. This is hardly the only moment worthy of lyrical ridicule either. The chorus of ‘anxiety’ is laughable, with Joe Talbot wailing “I’ve got anxiety / It has got the best of meeee” with all the clumsiness of a GCSE student coming to grips with rhyming couplets for the first time.
these flaws melt away under the sheer weight of the record’s momentum
Yet I feel bad, even cruel, to point out these failings, because in the moment these flaws melt away under the sheer weight of the record’s momentum. The lyrics were apparently improvised whilst in the studio, and if anything, their rawness and clumsiness is earnest and raw. And at times this search for authenticity produces some wicked fruit. The mellow, brooding ‘A Hymn’ is a definitive and uneasy look into austerity Britain, peeling away the layers with a humility and sincerity that only Bristol’s finest can conjure, swapping out the frantic and visceral guitars for something infinitely sparser and more atmospheric.
This approach is carried to other parts of the track list, with the minimalist simplicity of the phased guitar lick on ‘Grounds’, combined with the sporadic drum beats crescendoing into calls of “I am I-I / un-ni-fy” being dazzlingly effective; a crucial moment where the “sloganeering” IDLES have criticised for synthesising into a defiant rallying cry against racism and passivity. And we haven’t even mentioned ‘Model Village’, where the band dissects rural little England with almost clinical precision, managing to somehow chuck in snide comments about “gammon” and “nine-fingered boys” into an operation where they tug out the shrapnel of nationalism and “tabloid frenzy” before giving the damning diagnosis “You just sound like you’re scared to death”.
There’s some genuinely interesting experimentation here as well; the riffs which wail like fog-horns on ‘Reigns’, the hints of electronics and brass crying out in the mix, all of these elements feel like accidental sparks of genius, rather than a deliberate and methodically planned choice, and the record is all the better for it. But this adherence to spontaneity is double-edged sword however. Even without considering songs like ‘The Lover’, which loses itself in it’s own macho-quaintness, the record lacks the staying power you may expect from such a bombastic tracklist. Where IDLES’ previous records were grenades of class consciousness and contempt, Ultra Mono is a flashbang; a deafening blast of white lightning that quickly fades away once the record finishes.
I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing either. Ultra Mono is a record for the here and now, a call-to-arms in a time when we need unity most. This not a record meant to last. This is an unrefined, flawed gem destined to unify anyone who’s spent months shouting at the TV, and raging against the state of the world from the quiet isolation of their bedroom. Perhaps IDLES may not know how to convey their righteous fury at times, but that fury is as infectious, honest and important as ever.