Review Summary: We’re not a fucking punk band
The above sentence is a 2018 quote from IDLES' frontman, Joe Talbot. Turns out you kind of are in a punk band, Joe. Stylistically, at least. IDLES' core formula always embodied the genre's most distinguishable characteristics; the Pistols' angriness, The Fall’s post-punk angularity, Fugazi’s leftist positioning, as well as noise and post-hardcore riffs. The band's sound was a maelstrom of energy encapsulating most of the last forty years of enraged Brit music. Factor in the constant social commentaries disseminated throughout Talbot's lyrics, as well as their wild live performances, and you've got a band that can't possibly escape the punk comparisons.
won't change anything about this perception, since it’s as political and enraged as their two previous albums. If anything, this is the most urgent IDLES record yet. Aside from the penultimate track "A Hymn", all songs immediately discharge their societal diatribe through punk punchers. Opener "War" immediately kicks you in the mouth with a tight post-punk rhythm section, martial drums, distorted guitars, and Talbot's Rotten-like barks. This now trademark formula is replicated throughout the album, and therein lies the rub. Whereas Joy As an Act of Resistance
's opener "Colossus" took its time to exhibit all of the album's subtleties, Ultra Mono
chooses to instantly disclose its aesthetics, and it deprives the album of the surprise element its predecessor held. Besides Jamie Cullum's piano intro on "Kill Them With Kindness" or the dissonant sax on "Reigns", all twelve songs are centred around gnarled punk riffs and rebellious chants. The album title is prophetically accurate: there is one tone only, and this tone is ultra mono.
Surprises aside, the band evidently worked hard at maintaining consistency throughout the whole album. Their latest one attracted criticism for how lazy its last third was compared to its bombastic first tracks. On this album, they made sure that no lesser tune breaks the pace of the record, as all songs make sure your head bang. However, if the album's faults aren’t concentrated within a specific section this time, they are spread across the whole album. While IDLES haven't lost their adroit political commentaries, some lyrical sections feel like they did not get the redrafts they deserved; "Anxiety" rhyming "I have got anxiety" with "it has got the best of me", or sexual consent being summarized with the simplistic "Consent! Consent!". Such undercooked lyrics, when sung half-heartedly, result in underwhelming songs. Talbot has lost some power, his barked vocals sounding less anthemic than they were on Joy
. Likewise, IDLES always received praise for their resplendent one-liners; "this snowflake's an avalanche" being one of the finest examples. While this new record has got its fair share of funny punchlines, none have the impact of their most well-known ones. This rejoins Ultra Mono
's final flaw: it doesn't stick as much as expected. Although consistent, the album never sees a track stand out, whether it's lyrically or musically.
Still, this new record is a pleasant listen. The almost claustrophobic quality brought by beatmaker Kenny Beats works perfectly with the band's aesthetics, and the band's fusing of flaky humor and enraged politics once again proves to be a winner. Although these new songs might find a new resonance during live settings, they do not accomplish anything the band - or any of their influences - had already done. This isn't the first time that IDLES have been criticized for being a copycat of their inspirations. These criticisms always seemed very harsh to me, as their sound is different from the Pistols, for example, but this didn't prevent critics from destroying the new album in their reviews to make it seem like a generic knockoff of its influences.
It all goes back to the first question: are IDLES a punk band? Truth be told, there aren't many things less punk than being a copycat. The same criticism could be applied to progressive bands: they are still called prog even though they never progress beyond known musical boundaries. At this point, genre names are no longer descriptive, but rather portray a sonic and lyrical lineage descending from the original curators. Shouting political critiques while blasting Fall-esque riffs, the whole lot being done in underpants while thrashing Jools Holland's set, now this sounds like punk.
Sorry Joe Talbot, but your band is punk.