IDLES return with ‘Ultra Mono’, the follow-up to 2018’s Mercury-nominated 'Joy As An Act Of Resistance'. Described by the band’s gallant frontman Joe Talbot as “the most IDLES we can be,” the album lives up to that promise, doubling down on both their strengths and their flaws. Louis Griffin shares his thoughts on a record perhaps as polarising as the climate it was conceived in.
‘Ultra Mono’ opens with War, a deafening warning shot. IDLES have a history with strong openers, with the first tracks from both of their previous albums, Heel/Heal and Colossus, going on to become fan favourites. War takes that formula and dials it up to eleven. The first salvo of bass and drums sets you up to expect the same band that we have met before, but it’s a false alarm – when the true bass hits, the track nearly splits in two. The band’s much-fêted collaboration with Kenny Beats, a hip- hop producer, comes into play here with pummelling sub-bass and jet-engine guitars. This is perhaps the closest they come on the album to realising the vision of ‘Ultra Mono'; post-punk, but with the caustic bark of Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’. Talbot sounds authoritative as he begins vocalising all manner of weaponry (“Wha-ching! That’s the sound of the sword going in”) but as the track progresses, his lyrics belie ‘Ultra Mono’s Achilles heel.
Talbot is proud of the fact that the album’s lyrics were written in the vocal booth (the album was recorded at La Frette studios, with production from long-time collaborator Adam Greenspan and Nick Cave producer Nick Launay) but this might not be the silver bullet he believes it to be. While he sounds as direct as ever, the actual content of the songs is lacking compared to previous outings. For a post-punk band, this is anathema. He talks of the band’s “sloganeering and clichés,” but acknowledging the problem is not the same as nullifying it. Which is a shame, as on some tracks he pulls it off magnificently.
“[Talbot] sounds the most vital he has since ‘Brutalism’, the band’s debut – it’s just a shame that he never quite reaches the lyrical directness of that album.”
On second track Grounds, the rallying cry of “do you hear that thunder? / That’s the sound of strength in numbers” is galvanising, and Mr Motivator is indeed genuinely motivating, thanks to the glorious refrain of “you’re joe cal-f*****g-zaghe!” Talbot’s actual delivery across the album is also stunning. He sounds the most vital he has since ‘Brutalism’, the band’s debut – it’s just a shame that he never quite reaches the lyrical directness of that album. On Model Village, for instance, he takes aim at Little England, as on ‘Brutalism’ – but he never delves any deeper than surface-level observation. But then again, subtlety has never been IDLES’ forte.
Sonically, however, ‘Ultra Mono’ is undeniable. The band’s formidable rhythm section is out in force, with Jon Beavis’ drums (and their treatment by the various producers) a particular highlight. Closer Danke showcases his talents in full, and many of the tracks here just simply wouldn’t fly without him propelling them. Equally, the guitar work from Lee Keirnan and Mark Bowen is exemplary. The band lean closer to noise-rock than they ever previously have, and it pays off. Reigns’ rhythm guitar ebbs and flows in a thrilling way, and seems to be formed almost entirely out of feedback. On the album’s most tender track, A Hymn, the sonics are stunningly restrained, drifting towards something resembling My Bloody Valentine’s more emotive moments. This is a high point for the record; it’s one of their most experimental points, and it really works. Talbot’s seemingly unrelated phrases are achingly vulnerable, and when the crushing refrain of “shame, shame” comes in, it’s devastating.
Various collaborators turn up, which is a first time for the band – to mixed success. Jehnny Beth’s turn on Ne Touche Pas Moi is commanding, although Joe chanting “consent, consent, consent!” does feel slightly too on-the-nose. In an equally Marmite moment, Jamie Cullum plays a piano intro for Kill Them With Kindness, a move sure to divide listeners. The band just about pull it off, and his contribution provides a much-needed breather in the relentless opening charge of the record, but it’s incongruous to say the least. Elsewhere, David Yow and Warren Ellis make appearances, although you’d be forgiven for not noticing, as they’re limited to the occasional shout here and there. The album whips past at lightning speed, feeling far lighter than its forty two minutes. This is definitely due in part to the band retaining their knack for a cathartic chorus, even if they’re lyrically lacking, with both Carcinogenic and Reigns packing genuinely hulking climaxes.
‘Ultra Mono’ is a tricky beast too pin down, because its strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin. In Joe Talbot they have a divisive frontman, to say the least – to this reviewer, his approach is still refreshing and vital, but Fat White Family’s dismissal of the band as “self-neutering” is no longer completely baseless. The experimentation on the album is a crucial step up for IDLES, and represents their main development from previous albums – but it’s hard to square this with a lyrical regression. In truth, though, this is nit-picking, because the bones of these tracks are just as strong as anything in their stable, and when time comes for them to see the light of day live, they will be as thunderous as anyone could ask for. ‘Ultra Mono’ has its flaws, and I’m sure it will split listeners down the centre, but when it connects, it feels electric. These are divisive, polarising times after all – and ‘Ultra Mono’ is nothing if not an album of the times.
Words by: Louis Griffin
Edited by: Olivia Stock