Album Review: IDLES - 'CRAWLER'

IDLES are a ferocious post punk band formed in Bristol in 2009. Their second album ‘Joy as an Act of Resistance’ was nominated for the Hyundai Mercury Prize in 2018, and the band have also had impressive commercial success, topping the album charts with ‘Ultra Mono’ last year. IDLES return in 2021 with their long awaited 4th album, ‘CRAWLER’. The Mic’s releases editor Elliot Fox offers his thoughts.

Brutalism and Joy as an Act of Resistance, the first two albums released by Bristol post-punk band IDLES, are unarguably works of genius. Intelligent commentary on social issues such as immigration, depression, toxic masculinity and class divide, over a hulking mass of instrumentation is the unique appeal of these projects - raw, unfiltered, and cathartic. IDLES’ 2020 release Ultra Mono, however, was a huge divider for fans and critics alike. The album is instrumentally loud and brutish, and many argued that Talbot could have dug deeper lyrically having earned such a reputation as a force for change.

"The album rarely finds the visceral energy of Ultra Mono or the emotional volume of Joy as an Act of Resistance, but it is dark, dissonant and interesting in its own right."

Perhaps in light of these criticisms and Talbot’s experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, IDLES’ 2021 album CRAWLER takes a step back from politics in favour of self reflection. A quote from Talbot on the band’s Spotify biography reads “It was writing selfishly that helped make it possible… Not trying to fix the world - Just talking about how I am fixing mine.” The album features more of a focus on synths and crunchy percussive details than Ultra Mono, facilitated in part by Kenny Beats (Vince Staples, Freddie Gibbs), an unusual but exciting choice of co-producer.

The risk of new subject material is one that seldom pays off on CRAWLER, but the band’s textural exploration often does. The album rarely finds the visceral energy of Ultra Mono or the emotional volume of Joy as an Act of Resistance, but it is dark, dissonant and interesting in its own right. IDLES are sharp and aggressive as ever, but this time around, the band have traded some of their typical sonic bombardment for an uncomfortable edge and a decent attempt at introspection.

Much like the last album, IDLES have laid out their hard hitters right at the front. Opener MTT 420 RR, which shares its name with a powerful model of motorbike, is a brooding collation of unusual instrumentation starting with a pulsing noise not dissimilar to a ceiling fan. Serrated synth riffs of varied texture enter and fade in turn, accompanying buried strings, a robotic, single note guitar progression and a hand-held bell as ominous as the shackles of Jacob Marley.

It’s a haunting build-up worthy of a world-ending climax, but IDLES instead opt to close the track with an uncomfortable and minimal reset. The dramatic fills from drummer Jon Beavis with no payoff are initially frustrating, but after several listens prove to be the more artistic choice. MTT 420 RR is not a full package in itself, but leaves you with tension to be resolved later in the album.

You won’t have to wait long. IDLES follow up with a triple-barreled shotgun of head bangers, The Wheel, When the Lights Come On and Car Crash. The former is a distinctly galloping, crunchy groove outlined by guitar scratches, piercing kick drums and a raspy bass hook. The track’s climaxes are punctuated by an ascending, Royal-Blood-esque guitar riff which generates brilliant momentum, admittedly tainted by Talbot’s whining repetition of “Can I get a hallelujahhh?”

"Not all of CRAWLER is this exciting, and The New Sensation encapsulates what makes much of the back end of the album feel at best underwhelming, and at worst lazy."

Luckily, When the Lights Come On doesn’t suffer from this problem. The first minute of the track has nothing outstanding about it besides another menacing bass progression and some bouncy drums to push the track forward. The lights almost certainly come on when Beavis doubles his hi hats for the chorus. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, but Talbot’s gritty delivery and smart rhyme scheme provide a unique enough context to justify it.

Car Crash is a vicious new play on the loud-quiet formula we all know and love. Filthy bass, guitar that squeals like the saxophone of black midi’s Chondromalacia Patella and a weasely, intermittent synth riff make up the instrumentation of the loud section. Over this, Joe Talbot builds up his anger to the point of personifying a raging bull. All then drops away for the middle 8 - a quiet segment oriented around a chorused bass, arpeggiated guitar and an unfamiliar, soft voice. It’s an intriguing track that flows well, and sees IDLES doing something new, but both parts of Car Crash lack the convincing hook that would make it truly special.

Not all of CRAWLER is this exciting, and The New Sensation encapsulates what makes much of the back end of the album feel at best underwhelming, and at worst lazy. Buzzy chords build up to a flabby bassline and what feels like the same drums we’ve been hearing for the last 15 minutes. The worst sin of this track though, and of CRAWLER as a whole, is that despite a solid lyrical concept the phrases themselves come off as undercrafted and unintelligent. The chorus “Do the new sen-sa-tion” is charged with political irony - a criticism of the government's campaign to change the composition of the UK workforce. However, if like most people you’re not willing to trawl through various reddit pages to work that out, Talbot might as well be trying to sell you drugs.

The next track to stand out is The Beachland Ballroom. The band cleverly re-brand a recurring part of their sound - six loud successive hits of drums and guitar - by making it a key part of The Beachland Ballroom’s waltzing chord progression. It’s a subtle self reference, an easter-egg for fans, and a builder anticipation for each new verse. The song builds in energy, then cuts out to bare drums and lonely vocals that sound like they’re being performed in a shed. When the track all comes back in it’s similar to before, but the vocals have stepped up a notch. When Talbot repeatedly screams “DAMAGE”, it’s one of the most painful moments you’ll find on any IDLES track.

This is followed by the title-inspiring Crawl! If the main body of the track is a punchy but uninventive run of guitar jabs, the headline is Joe Talbot’s ferocious rendition of “…YEAHHH I’M A FUCKING CRAWLER…”. If you’ve been loving the album so far, it’s a line guaranteed to at least make you breath out of your nose a bit harder with excitement. If you’ve not been digging it, it might just be the last straw. IDLES are as dividing here as they were on Ultra Mono - you either buy into their sound and message, or you find yourself feeling a bit pissed off. In my opinion, Crawl! is nothing short of wonderful.

Then comes the relatively uninteresting track Meds and an interlude, and then Progress. Progress is a constant repetition of two undoubtedly drug related stanzas that are slowly joined by more and more solid instrumentation. The vocal performance is tuneful, but dreary to give the track that extra psychedelic boost, as if it needed it. The unusual time signature combined with the dynamic panning of heavily processed synths and backing vocals already make for a seriously trippy experience. Halfway through the track, the hypnotic loop is punched through by a sporadic half-bass, half-synth riff - a unique sound. The effect is very arty. It’s almost as if you yourself are on a comedown with the members of IDLES, and structure slowly returns as you regain awareness of the world around you. Progress isn’t a track to play around friends, and it doesn’t sound much like the rest of the album, but it’s contemplative, atmospheric and well crafted.

Besides some semi-humourous lyrics, nothing eventful really occurs throughout IDLES punk-metal parody Wizz, and penultimate track King Snake. The End, however, despite being a predictably structured, all-loud IDLES number, is a worthy finisher to CRAWLER. An emotive chord progression is only partially spoiled by low, gurgling backing vocals, and Jon Beavis doesn’t hold back, incorporating the full kit into his part to produce an energetic finale. Best of all, Talbot’s chorus, “In spite of it all, life is beautiful”, is melodic, raw, and performed with enough heart to counter it’s cliche. It’s not the peak of the album, and maybe not worthy of such a prestigious track title, but it’s still powerful.

Despite releasing only a year after Ultra Mono, CRAWLER feels like the result of massive effort. The album explores electronic and even psychedelic sound, and Joe Talbot takes big risks laying out his emotions and personal experience. On the front end of the album, tracks have punch, momentum and emotion, but unfortunately CRAWLER doesn’t keep up the pace throughout. Lyrics become unsophisticated, and many tracks offer nothing new, retreading square grooves and textbook song structure. IDLES have lost some of that visceral potency that has me jumping around my room for the majority of their last three albums, but the album certainly isn’t a miss. CRAWLER has head nodding ragers, abrasive ear-candy and even a few painful moments. It isn’t a jack of all trades, but at times it’s the master of a fair few.

Written by: Elliot Fox

In article images courtesy of IDLES via Facebook. Video courtesy of IDLES via YouTube.