ALBUM REVIEW: IDLES - Ultra Mono
Ben uses Genius lyrics to find "Tukka-tuk, tuk, tuk, tuk-tukka".
The world is a better place with IDLES in it. Championing progressive ideals and leftist politics while disassembling the restrictive evils of 'toxic masculinity', there is perhaps no band or artist in the world right now that uses their music for good like this Bristol five-piece.
2018's Joy as an Act of Resistance was both one of the best, and one of the most important, records of the last decade (we featured it at #38 on our list of The Best Albums of the 2010s) fusing frenetic punk-rock instrumentation with razor-sharp obliterations of white nationalism, "maleness" and the UK's Conservative government. Along with the group's debut Brutalism, IDLES' first two LPs remain essential listening now, ever further ensnared by the cruelties and incompetence of another Tory administration. Joy however casts a shadow that (in the words of Joe Talbot himself) "weighs a tonne" in both the band's own high standards and the expectations of the group's colossal fanbase.
With this week's Ultra Mono then, it must be understood that this album comes with both Joy and Brutalism fresh in memory, and unfortunately it does little to build upon the ideas of their 2018 masterpiece. I'm always against comparing an artist's work against itself for the sake of it, as it is true that each album should always be viewed in its own right, but with this latest record my overwhelming feeling is that there is little expressed on Ultra Mono that IDLES have not already said better in the past, despite a continuation of excellent individual performances and the distinct style of one of Britain's best rock groups.
Opening up with 'War', the album starts phenomenally, perhaps being even as good an opener as 'Colossus' was to Joy. The scope of the band's sound has expanded significantly on this album, with the group sounding tighter than ever and utterly propelled by apocalyptically massive drum performances from Jon Beavis throughout - the fill at [1:30] of the opening track in particular sounds fucking incredible.
I love Talbot's onomatopoeic opening:
"Wa-ching! That's the sound of the sword going in
Clack-clack-clack-a-clang clang! That's the sound of the gun going bang-bang
Tukka-tuk, tuk, tuk, tuk-tukka! That's the sound of the drone button pusher
Shh, shhh, shhh! That's the sound of the children tooker"
For me though, the album never gets better than it does on the opening track. Scraping guitars and explosive snare hits combine into this frenzy of sounds, and I can only imagine how many blisters must have ravaged Adam Devonshire's fingers while tying together the relentless intensity of this track.
I didn't like 'Grounds' when it released as a single and I don't like where it sits in the track listing. For all the momentum established by 'War', 'Grounds' slows the album right down, and though I love the messaging of unified, socialist action and the significance of the track's connection to the Black Lives Matter movement, I just don't think the song goes anywhere. Even with the exciting collapse that closes the track out, I find 'Grounds' to be slow and even dull at times - made worse by it being stuck perplexingly between two of the album's most energetic songs.
In my entirely unqualified opinion, 'Mr. Motivator' should have been the album's second track - perfectly picking up the breakneck speed of 'War' with Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan delivering guitar lines in a way that makes me want to kick people in the face (in a good way). I enjoy the absurdity of "Flava Flav in the club riding on the back of John Wayne" but getting to the choruses, despite Talbot shouting about "seizing the day" I don't really think anything important is being said. That's not a big criticism, but when compared back to the incredible efficiency of the political lyricism on Joy, I can't help but find this track more than a little underwhelming too.
It's so odd to levy the complaint of being 'preachy' to IDLES, but its almost the word I want to use to describe 'Anxiety'. The open discussions about mental health are great, but hearing Talbot shout
"Our government hates the poor
Cold leaders, cold class war
Keeping drugs you can't afford
So the poor can't buy the cure"
feels somewhat distant from the visceral experience of previous IDLES lyricism. Though I still agree wholeheartedly with IDLES' messages, at times Ultra Mono feels more like Talbot trying to lecture listeners about his (very well informed) perception of the world's problems rather than the immediacy of Joy and Brutalism's emotionally-charged experiences. Either way the group is still presenting positive social messages, which is fantastic of course, but I do find at times the politics of Ultra Mono much less resonant than before.
I don't find 'Kill Them With Kindness' that interesting, despite opening up with a piano (an instrument about as alien to IDLES as imaginable). With 'Model Village' though, I find something really compelling about Talbot's little "model car, model wife, model village" melodies. It has what is probably my favourite chorus of the album, and I've spent a lot of the past few weeks screaming "I don't care about your rose garden" as loud as possible.
'Ne Touche Pas Moi' is a low point for me, unfortunately. I want an IDLES and Jenny Beth anthem dedicated to threatening "cat-callers" and "wolf-whistles" with getting shot in the face to be a good song, but I'm sorry. Can we call the repetition of "Ne Touche Pas Moi" and
what it is? It's wank. It's lazy and it sounds so disruptively silly that if anything it might even go as far as to undermine the message of the track itself. Add to that one of the most forgettable instrumentals I've heard on an IDLES song to date, and this feels like a tune that only survived the editing process because it had already committed to a featured artist appearance.
'Carcinogenic' contributes further to lyrics of a bubbling socialist revolution, describing worker exploitation and income inequality as a cancer, administered by capitalist pigdogs and those cutting big slices out of public spending (whoever that could be). I love 'Reigns'. I love the bassline, I love the thick, squeaky Madness horn that haunts the track. Most of all though, I love how Talbot sounds more intimidating, more imposing and more serious on this track than ever before - all while giving one of the album's more reserved performances.
In the same key, 'The Lover' operates as a part two to 'Reigns,' but it doesn't add much. Rather than building on the success of one of the LP's best songs, 'The Lover' sounds like we entered a parallel universe where IDLES wrote 'Reigns' but stripped it of everything interesting. Somehow, we've ended up with both the excellent, and the dull versions of this tune. I wanted to like 'A Hymn' more in the context of the album, after not really enjoying it as a single - but unfortunately I still don't really see the appeal. It appears like a track building towards a specific destination, but it - like 'Grounds' - doesn't feel like it gets anywhere worthwhile, all of its five minute run time considered.
Ending on 'Danke', a good tune all things considered, Ultra Mono closes the next chapter in the discography of a group that should find themselves considered one of the most significant bands of modern British music history. There is plenty here to enjoy for IDLES' biggest fans, and I bet that for many people this could even be their favourite album of the year. I'm glad to see so many people enjoying this record in the first days of its release - as any success for IDLES means the successful spread of a political message of compassion, acceptance and unity - but unfortunately it was an album that I enjoyed far, far less than any of IDLES' previous projects.
The band has never had this much filler on an album. So few of the tracks on Ultra Mono justify shunting a 'Well Done' or a 'Danny Nedelko' off a setlist, and so many of the tracks I intend to never visit again. It is still a good album, better than a good portion of the guitar rock created at the moment, but unfortunately it does not live up to the expectations of what IDLES are capable of.
- 6.3 -
‘War’, ‘Model Village’, ‘Reigns'
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
This article was edited by Fin Cousins, a literature student and writer studying at Kings College, London. He is an avid consumer of sports and music and is still waiting for Love Island to accept his application. He also made our logo.
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