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Bristol five-piece Idles are a phenomenon now, having recently hit the number one spot in the UK charts with their third record, Ultra Mono. Their first record, 2017’s Brutalism, was a blast of punky noise rock. The lyrics – about things like drugs, cancer, bar fights, hating the Tory party, pissing in the sink, and getting bored at art museums – ranged across different types of anger: pent up frustration, a habit and maybe a recreational past-time of walking around mad, and an understandable cynicism given the state of the world. When you’re constantly angry nihilism can become tempting. It can feel like a relief or even fun. The songs on Brutalism played out an emotional tension between wanting to keep fighting nihilism and wanting to give in to it.
Idles took a more positive turn in their second record, released about a year and a half later, as reflected in its title, Joy As An Act Of Resistance. The band talked about the record as informed by some reflections about their own lives and kind of people they wanted to be, and their singer had been through some intense personal tragedies. There was an emphatically pro-immigrant anthem, “Danny Nedelko,” celebrating diversity and friendship against the rising xenophobia of the day, and a love song partly about the challenges of being a decent partner. There were also some angry self-affirmations, “I’m scum!” shouted in a bragging way, and some tough guy boasts about being the king and a Rottweiler.
Despite its title, Joy was still often fairly negative, like in the violence of “Never Fight A Man With A Perm,” the agitated brooding of most of the album opener “Colossus,” the heartbroken “June” (about the death of a child) and reflections on the disaffection and ugly nationalism of Britain in the Brexit age. The biggest difference this time out was that the band’s gestures toward politics gave the songs’ anger a focus – being mad about shit in the world, instead being mad at yourself for feeling like shit – which made it an uplifting kind of anger. Brutalism often sounded like the inward-directed anger of isolation, with the only role of other people being a shared circling of the drain, while Joy sounded like enjoying being mad at the same things as other people. That gave the record a more accessible feel, which probably contributed to the record’s surprisingly big success.
Now comes Ultra Mono, which by landing a number one spot on the UK album charts has cemented Idles as the kind of popular music where people think about things like chart position. That means some people who might like Idles if they a poorly recorded DIY band write them off as overhyped and mainstream. (To their credit, Idles have continued to support smaller bands, inviting USA Nails to open for them, sharing other bands’ music on their social media pages, and putting out compilation with Ultra Mono called Ultra Stereo, including loads of great current bands much less renowned.)
I imagine some of the response to Idles today is like Nirvana. Nirvana was a good and very hard working band, combining noise, aggression, vulnerability, and pop hooks, but other bands did those things too. At the end of the day, the difference between Nirvana and bands who didn’t break out as much was luck. For someone new to their sound, as I was when I heard them on the radio in the eighth grade, Nirvana could feel like a revelation, but for people already familiar with that sound didn’t quite get why there was so much fuss about this particular band. I think some people respond similarly to Idles. That’s unfortunate because, first off, the excitement of people for whom this is a new sound should be respected instead of pissed on and second, Idles make good music that should be taken on its own terms.
Ultra Mono’s album opener “War” starts off with a thundering clatter of drums and repetitive, lightly distorted bass guitar, then comes a scratchy and dissonant guitar and vocals that are a mix of talk-singing and shout-singing. It’s driving, abrasive, and catch. There are bits of dissonant and off kilter noise, and bits with heartfelt hooks. It’s one of the standout tracks for how harsh and energetic it sounds. Personally, it’s the harshest moments I like best on Ultra Mono, like the end of “Anxiety” where the band are all yelling and bashing away in a staccato beat, or the repeated bending of notes in the guitar on “Mr. Motivator,” and the feedback and warbles played in “Reigns” and “Danke.” In those moments, the band sound like they might fly apart in all different directions. On other parts of the record, Idles explore a catchier punk – power chords and propulsive drums and anthemic vocals – and post-punk – guitar as texture, shimmering high-hats, and soulful singing.
The lyrics this time out are further from Brutalism and closer to Joy, or if anything they’re an extension of Joy’s trajectory: the band sound more happy, self-assured, and politically focused, with songs about the Tories, feminism, war, class, and collective action (“do you hear that thunder? That’s the sound of strength in numbers”). Joy As An Act Of Resistance sounded to me like its title was a goal – an effort to to figure out how to be happy despite [waves hands wildly] everything. On Ultra Mono the band sound like they’ve managed to achieve some peace with themselves, in part through a greater sense of focus and shared anger at the shit state of the world. It sounds good. I will say – and this may be just a matter of where I’m at in my own life – I miss some of the emotional negativity and ambivalence of the band’s earlier work.
If you’re already into noise rock (or if you’re already on the left and listen to relatively articulate leftist music pretty regularly) and you’ve been avoiding Ultra Mono because you’re too punk or don’t get what the hype is about, set that aside and give the record two or three listens. It won’t blow your mind, but it’s a good, creative record in the genre, mixing its harsher moments with catchier ones that go outside the genre’s conventions. For people newer to this kind of sound (and lyrical contents), Ultra Mono is a can’t miss and will expand your horizons.
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