IDLES' 'Ultra Mono' Is Punk Rock for the Twitter Age — for Better or Worse
Published Sep 22, 2020Like it or not, IDLES may be the face of punk rock in 2020. The sneering British band has exploded in popularity since releasing two critically acclaimed albums just over a year apart: 2017's Brutalism and 2018's Joy as an Act of Resistance. They've been embraced for their intensity, their vulnerability, their bluntness and their inclusivity; for letting out their sadness, their rage and their joy and turning it into a movement. They say what punks want to hear and they say it loudly and brazenly. Fuck Brexit. Fuck Trump. Fuck the patriarchy. Fuck white supremacy. Fuck the system. Destroy, rebuild and rejoice.
While IDLES' third album Ultra Mono draws heavily from the genre's canon, it's very much a product of its time. The record scrolls through earnestness, anxiety and ironic shit-posting at the speed of a finger flick. They are a self-serious yet completely over-the-top rock band, which — like anything that gains notice on the internet — makes them highly susceptible to skeptics, critics and haters. It's punk rock in the Twitter age.
Musically, IDLES are louder, heavier and rowdier than their neighbours in Fontaines D.C. and Shame, stopping short of the hardcore punk of similarly acerbic groups like Drug Church and Single Mothers. Ultra Mono is generally slower and sludgier than Joy, full of midtempo jams delivered with bottom-heavy bass and two-tonne guitars. There are more industrial-influenced songs like "A Hymn" that share stylistic space with Deftones, Hum and the Jesus Lizard and fewer of the basement-party anthems and circle-pit starters like "Danny Nedelko."
In the hands of Nick Launay and Adam Greenspan, IDLES sound more tight and punchy than ever. With brash, uptempo songs like "Model Village" and "Carcinogenic," Ultra Mono feels a bit like hearing old-school Dead Kennedys worship crossed with the Bush-era sloganeering of Anti-Flag and Green Day, redesigned for a generation that's been bred to be even more angry, cynical and snarky than their predecessors. According to the band, the record was also "constructed to capture the feeling of a hip-hop record." That's a stretch, even with contributions from Kenny Beats (whose other collaborators include Denzel Curry, Vince Staples and 03 Greedo). But trying to tap into the success of hip-hop is very much a sign of the times. So if you're looking for a punk band that's of its era, IDLES have that part covered, too.
The centrepiece of IDLES has always been the howling hooliganism of Joe Talbot and his polemical, sardonic stump speeches. He's more unhinged than ever on Ultra Mono, gear-shifting between smart-alecky shouting, full-blown bellowing and ornery exhibits of onomatopoeia. Talbot makes an astounding commitment to his bits, which means that he can pull off the type of belligerence that only Serj Tankian and a few others have attempted, whether he's hitting you over the head with the same word over and over again ("Model Village"), making the "clack-a-clang" sounds of a "gun going bang-bang" ("War") or literally barking like a dog and gnawing like a beaver ("Kill Them with Kindness").
While the theme of Joy as an Act of Resistance was self-evident, Ultra Mono's message is a bit muddier. It gives equal space to individualism and collectivism, to kindness and vengeance, to personal grievances and the greater good. Talbot takes issue with warmongers, flag-wavers, white nationalists, homophobes, misogynists, sexual abusers, capitalists, politicians, "the machine," gatekeepers and general "pricks." He snarls at individual bad actors, but saves his harshest barbs for the broader systems of inequity. He repeatedly utters the mantra "I am I," while also frequently urging unity. "Do you hear that thunder? / That's the sound of strength in numbers," he declares in "Grounds." Absurdist analogizing and macho-political muscle-flexing tend to overshadow the record's more trenchant commentary, but Talbot has reasonably decided that clever critique is not as good of an on-stage rallying cry as a full-throated "eat shit," and that it's not worth risking ambiguity in a song about the war industry ("War") or sexual harassment ("Ne Touche Pas Moi") when you could just scream "anti-war!" and "consent!"
As they've gained notoriety, IDLES have been subjected to purity tests of both their politics and their punk cred, some unduly harsh and others quite reasonable. (Frankly, it is consistent with the commonly criticized performative allyship of social media to proclaim "Black is beautiful!" on an album that features a long list of guests — including David Yow, Jamie Cullum, Jehnny Beth and Warren Ellis — but no Black artists.) Consequently, vocalist Joe Talbot has developed a preoccupation with "haters" that, if left unchecked, could lead to full-blown Eminem syndrome. Listening to IDLES is obviously not the same as activism, but their intentions are good.
It's also worth noting that even at its most politically incisive and cerebral (Propagandhi and Fugazi come to mind), punk is fundamentally a visceral, physical art form. IDLES are at their best when they know their limits and play to their strengths. Like a hard liquor, they're harsh, bitter and indelibly intoxicating. They will provoke you to join a mosh pit or ram your head into a wall, and they might prompt you to vote Labour in the next election. They're not about to incite a revolution, but Ultra Mono encourages people to throw a punch in the right direction. (Partisan)