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Album Reviews

Album Review: IDLES - Ultra Mono (Partisan Records/Liberator Music)

Sam Smith

It has been a whirlwind few years for Bristol post-punk group IDLES. After forming in 2009 and slogging it out for years, they finally hit it big with their critically acclaimed 2018 album Joy as an Act of Resistance, a record that arrived amidst the politically-charged climate of Brexit. Now, two years on, the lads are back with their third album Ultra Mono and they might just be in their best form yet.

Ultra Mono is released against the backdrop of Trump and a global pandemic. In 2020, the times are no less political than in 2018 and IDLES is definitely a band that draws on politics in their music. They are quite clearly leftists and have no time for Tories or fascists. “How does it feel to have shanked the working classes into dust” lead singer Joe Talbot howls on "Reign", “I see a lot of gammon in the village "he proclaims during "Model Village".

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Image By: Tom Ham

It is this political edge set to a hardcore post-punk sound that puts IDLES at the front of a new wave of exciting guitar bands coming through Britain. The “landfill indie” era of the 2000s is long gone and in its place are groups taking inspiration from the likes of Public Image Limited, The Fall and Joy Division. Idles, Shame, Black Midi and Fontaines D.C. are just some of these high-octane, energetic groups.  

Ultra Mono was preluded by some excellent singles, especially in the form of "Mr. Motivator" and "A Hymn", giving hope that the rest of the album was going to live up to what were quite high expectations. Thankfully, the band more than lived up to those expectations, in fact, Talbot and company absolutely exceeded those expectations and then some.

Tracks like the album opener "War" are shrouded in loud guitars, booming drums, and Talbot’s now instantly recognisable scowl. This aggressive nature which is fast becoming an IDLES trademark certainly makes you stand up and take notice, and as far as opening songs go, this is a goodie.

The heat doesn’t die down in the meat of the album either. "Anxiety" is a rousing anthem about mental health with the telling line “the government hates the poor, giving them drugs they can’t afford, so they can’t find the cure.” Meanwhile, the opening piano cadence of "Kill Them with Kindness" is as deceptive as it gets, as just as you think IDLES are going to hit you with a ballad, in comes those guitars and thumping drums again.

Forget about listener rest-bite on Ultra Mono. Whether it is the early-Damned sounding "Ne Touche Pas Moi", the harsh realism of "Carcinogenic" with the line “you only die once, you never come back,” the industrial rock of "The Lover", or indeed punchy album closer "Danke", every moment is as if Talbot is standing over you with his microphone, proceeding to scream in your face.

There is no escaping the intensity of this wild ride of an album as a listener and that is exactly how IDLES wants it. You, the fan, completely zoned in listening to every riff and every political take down across the twelve tracks. And with lyrics as amusing as “like Kathleen Hanna with bear claws grabbing Trump by the Pussy. Like Delia Smith after ten chardonnays making me a nice cookie,” why would you want to associate your attention elsewhere?

Every year a think piece comes out proclaiming guitar music is dead and every year an album turns up to prove all doubters wrong. In 2020, that album surely is Ultra Mono, an album that in essence is made for these trying times.

IDLES wear their heart on their sleeves and never take a backward step when coming forward with such ferocious material. Lyrically, they push the dagger into the ruling classes and offer a true voice to the working poor. This is what rock and roll has done on and off for sixty odd years and what it should be doing more than ever now amidst COVID, Brexit and the rise of Trumpism.

Ultra Mono is one of the best, and at that, entertaining albums you are likely to hear in 2020. It is one of the best political albums you are likely to hear. And it is an album that proves once again that there is still merit in well-executed and exciting guitar music, despite what the naysayers think.

Check out Ultra Mono  here

Written By: Sam Smith When he is not writing for Radio 13 Sam works in media and journalism at 95bFM radio and the University of Auckland. He also has is own personal music blog Nowhere Bros.