Saturday, October 3, 2020

ALBUM REVIEW: IDLES - Ultra Mono

Ultra Mono | IDLES

When it comes to music, every year I seem to follow a pattern. I'll stumble across a band or artist I've never heard of, I'll listen to a couple songs and think "Eh, these guys are decent," put them on the backburner, come back a month or two later, then realize that they're one of my favorite bands ever. This was the case for IDLES last year. While scrolling through BBC's YouTube page trying to find highlights from The Killers headlining set, I stumbled across this band and the thumbnail honestly made me laugh. A man with a bushy mustache playing guitar in his underwear on stage, I knew I had to check this band out and the resulting performance was amazing. The video was a performance of their song Danny Nedelko from their 2018 album Joy as an Act of Resistance and it was incredible. The band's stage presence, the energy in the crowd, everything about this was incredible. I immediately watched the full performance and was just blown away by how amazing this band was. Frontman Joe Talbot was coming through with these really thoughtful lyrics paired with an incredibly passionate delivery. Guitarists Mark Bowen (Mr. Mustachio) and Lee Kiernan were playing these heavy, super chunky riffs, and the rhythm section of Adam Devonshire and Jon Beavis was honestly just brutal. Beavis is beating his drums so hard they might file assault charges and Devonshire is providing awesome background vocals and adding to the energy in general. 


So when news broke of a new IDLES album, I was super excited. The first single Mr. Motivator was honestly hilarious with Talbot just making all of these nonsense similies singing "Like Connor McGregor with a samurai sword on rollerblades...Like Flava Flav in the club riding on the back of John Wayne," following all of these saying "How'd you like them clich├ęs." While I've slowly fallen out of love with the song, the riff still bangs and the energy is great. Then there was the song Grounds which honestly might be one of the best songs I've heard all year. There's this really cool delayed and pitch-shifted guitar intro that gives way to thundering drums, bass, and distorted guitar. Joe's lyrics on the song are great and really appropriate for the times, singing in the second verse:

Not a single thing has ever been mended
By you standing there and saying you're offended
Go ahead, tell them what I've intended
I'll say what I mean, do what I love and f*cking send it

There's nothing brave and nothing useful
You scrawling your aggro sh*t on the walls of the cubicle
Saying my race and class ain't suitable
So I raise my pink fist and say black is beautiful

I also really love the chorus on this song with Talbot asking "Do you hear that thunder? That's the sound of strength in numbers." After this single we got a complete curveball in the song A Hymn which is super slow, led by synths, and is honestly just a moment of reflection for Talbot. Singing about how he wants to be loved just like everyone else. There are also some hilarious lines in the verses with Talbot singing about how he did hot Zumba classes to lose weight for his wedding and later singing about how Teletext has a special place in his heart because they gave him a 10% discount. 


We got back to the bangers with the last single Model Villiage, which, the more I listen to it, the more it reminds of a Slowthai song. Just the way Talbot delivers the lyrics and the general vibe of the song, which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that Kenny Beats had a hand in some of the production on this album. Reading into the lyrics though, it reminds me more and more of that Simpsons meme, the "Old Man Yells at a Cloud" meme. It's really just Joe whining about things he doesn't like about this village he lives in, which gets kind of tiring by the end of the first verse, although the chorus is hilarious with Talbot screaming "I BEG YOUR PAAAAARDON / I DON'T CARE ABOUT YOUR ROOOOOOSE GARDEN!!" So with this mixed bag of singles, I was interested to hear what the band could offer on a new project. I was hoping they could keep up the consistency of their past two albums Brutalism and Joy as an Act while coming through with of course, fresh lyrics and maybe some new sounds picked up from two straight years of touring, and in a sense, I got that. 


Sure, the riffs are still super heavy and there's still of a ton of energy but there's a huge component to IDLES music that is severely lacking on this new album and that is Talbot's lyrics. I don't think his lyrics have ever been this weak ever. And that's not to say all of them are entirely terrible, every now and then he has a good one line or a solid verse, but I can't get behind just how blunt his lyrics are. It sort of backs you into a corner since it's so on the nose that you can't really disagree with anything he sings about. Especially on songs like Ne Touche Pas Moi where after the in between the chorus and verses, Talbot and Jenny Beth are just screaming CONSENT! CONSENT! CONSENT! after Talbot sings about how "your body is your body / and it belongs to nobody but you." I can't hate the message of the song and of course, being IDLES, there's still a great riff and a lot of energy but it's just so unoriginal on all fronts. 

IDLES in a promotional image for their live album "A Beautiful Thing: Live at Le Bataclan." IDLES is (from L to R) Lee Keirnan, Joe Talbot, Jon Beavis, Mark Bowen, and Adam Devonshire

The song Anxiety is another in this vein. There are so many creative ways to sing about anxiety, depression, other mental issues but just screaming I HAVE ANXIETY almost comes off in poor taste. Almost like the South Park episode where Cartman finds out he has anxiety.  The lyrics somehow get even more blunt later on with Talbot singing about how "The government hates the poor" and how the government keeps the drugs that the poor can't afford "so the poor can't buy the cure." The song doesn't have a central focus lyrically with Talbot going from singing about his girlfriend dumped him to singing about anxiety to talking about why the government is terrible. And even worse is, this sounds just like the song 1049/Gotho from their album Brutalism except, instead of depression Talbot is singing about Anxiety. I think that's an overarching with the whole album. I honestly think the band is starting to run out of ideas and if they don't find a fix soon, I think they'll fade away after two more albums.

With that being said, I can give this album some praise where praise is due because once again, the band is coming through with banger after banger. The opening song War is honestly kind of hilarious with Joe's onomatopoeia throughout the whole first verse, opening the album by singing, "WAACHING! That's the sound of the sword going in." The song has honestly grown on me a lot since the first time I heard, the guitars and the drumming on this song are honestly nuts. Jon Beavis pulls off this crazy fill around the 1:30 mark. I also love the song Kill Them With Kindness. Talbot sounds hungry and pissed off on this track and it sounds incredible. The lyrics on this song are about smiling in the face of injustice with Talbot singing in the second verse: "It doesn't mean you have to bow, or say "Your Highness" / Just kill 'em with kindness / If you wanna beat the machine, keep your teeth clean / And kill 'em with kindness." 


The song Carcinogenic might be my favorite writing on the album. It's a song about how people work their asses off but aren't really rewarded for it financially meanwhile their bosses are constantly getting raises and "smiling through their new teeth." I also love the chorus with Talbot singing about how you only die once so while you're on Earth, love what you can. The song The Lover is another song about smiling in the face of hate with Talbot singing about how everyone around him has given him the confidence to look at his haters and simply say, "F*ck you, I'm a lover." I always crack up at the line "Look Mom! I'm a soul singer / Singing in the faces of the middle fingers." I'm also guessing that Talbot knew what controversy and what complaints were gonna come from this album because he drops a whole verse about how he doesn't care that people "don't like our cliches, our sloganeering, and our catchphrase." And while I love the closing song Danke, I hate just how abruptly it ends especially considering it takes us nearly 2 minutes for Talbot to start singing which isn't really all that great for a 3 and a half minute long song. 

All in all, I didn't really get the same enjoyment and didn't come out of this album feeling the same way I did after listening to Joy and Brutalism for the first time. And that's not to say this album is bad, it has great highlights and Grounds might be one of my favorite IDLES songs ever. My problem is, I already knew I loved this song and all the teaser tracks going into it and those same songs are my favorite on the album. Pair that with Talbot's weak, almost painful lyrics at times and I came out conflicted. I want to like this album more but, I just can't.

I would rate
Ultra Mono
By IDLES

6/10

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