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ALBUM REVIEW: IDLES – ULTRA MONO (PARTISAN)

4.5

IDLES’ third album sees the band cement their own sound in a way that is honest, powerful, and unapologetic. 

The rise of IDLES has been quick and deserved. Their 2017 debut, Brutalism, first caught people’s attention before 2018’s Joy as an Act of Resistance led to a Mercury Prize nomination and a huge UK tour at the end of last year. Ultra Mono, written in Bristol and recorded at La Frette Studios just outside of Paris, cuts through all the noise surrounding the band’s rapid ascent and gives us a record that is purely, unapologetically, IDLES. 

‘War’ kicks us off, with its thumping bass and energetic drumbeat immediately putting the listener on edge. When guitarist Mark Bowen joins the assault, you quickly realise you’ve come unprepared. The warning provided by his air raid siren-like lead has come too late. You’re not going to travel through Ultra Mono relaxing in business class. You’ve been pushed from the plane into a war zone, and you don’t have a parachute. 

We land on ‘Grounds’, the first of two singles in a row, and hear frontman Joe Talbot scream “I am I” for the first time, a “momentary acceptance of the self” that runs throughout Ultra Mono. The song is a call to action, a call to “Unify”. There are similar themes in ‘Mr. Motivator’, a purposefully silly track full of references to celebrities from David Attenborough to Conor McGregor. It’s a feel-good track with an anthemic chorus: “Let’s seize the day. All hold hands, chase the pricks away.”

Next up is ‘Anxiety’. If you’re unsure of the feeling, having a quick browse of the most read stories today on BBC News should give you a good idea. Verse one describes some personal anxieties (“My girlfriend just dumped me. For… a boy who’s six-foot-three”) before Talbot brings in the real juicy stuff in verse two: “Our government hates the poor. Cold leaders, cold class war”. The song starts to both build and unravel towards the end, with producers Nick Launay, Adam Greenspan and Kenny Beats creating a feeling of claustrophobia that adds to the anxiety of the track perfectly.

‘Kill Them With Kindness’ begins with a relaxing piano contribution from Jamie Cullum before an angry, barking guitar riff takes over. The message of the song is clear, and it’s impossible not to stomp your foot along with Beavis’ bass drum. ‘Model Village’ sums up the feelings and frustrations of growing up in a small town, with Talbot’s strained vocals in the chorus reflecting the struggle to break free and get out into the world. 

The album takes a slightly different turn on ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’, a “sawn-off for the cat-callers” and a track that any woman who has ever been to a gig can probably relate to. Savages’ Jehnny Beth contributes to the chorus, adding extra punch. The French isn’t correct, but this only adds to the charm of the track.  

‘Carcinogenic’ and ‘Reigns’ see IDLES address the current state of the country and our government, but in different ways. The former features Talbot’s commentary over a typically catchy riff and punchy chorus, the frontman eventually declaring “the lunatics have taken over the asylum”. ‘Reigns’ is darker. The verses see Talbot repeat the same line over an unsettling, pulsing, sometimes screeching guitar sound: “How does it feel to have blue blood coursing through your veins?”. The chorus is one of the biggest on the album, as the band dares their blue-blooded enemy to shut them up.

We revisit the “I am I” mantra running throughout Ultra Mono on ‘The Lover’, as the band make no apologies for the clichés and sloganeering they are often marked down for.  ‘A Hymn’ takes things down a notch, focussing on insecurity. Talbot struggles to get away from a feeling of shame, despite doing everything that he feels he is supposed to do. 

Ultra Mono closes on ‘Danke’, the track making you feel as though you’re surrounded with no way out. The lyrics to the verse are Daniel Johnston’s, from 1985: “True love will find you in the end. You will find out just who was your friend.” On the lyrics, Talbot said: “if someone’s said something as earnestly and concisely as possible, then why try and change it?”. 

The album will undoubtedly have its critics, just as the band have had in general since the success of Joy in 2018. However, this is a great album with a powerful, sincere message, as the band write on the album sleeve: “You are now. You are all. All is love.”

Ultra Mono is out on Friday 25th September, via Partisan Records. 

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