Idles’ third album Ultra Mono is knowingly sincere. Its anti-war, sexual harassment, and racist sentiments are, (like the album artwork), aggressively hurtled towards you like a giant pink inflatable ball. Even the album title itself Ultra Mono (which refers to a mix that has equal volumes in both channels) reinforces Idles’ head-strong, unwavering message on this record.
There isn’t much room or need for subtlety here. From the opener ‘War’ to the final track ‘Danke’, that pink ball hits you in the face and barely gives you any time to recover. Politically and musically, Ultra Mono isn’t offering or really saying anything new, but in the midst of such a politically hopeless era, this kind of obvious sincerity is needed.
An explosive sound
Off the bat, the power of Idles’ sound is punishingly clear. Bolstered by co-producers Adam Greenspan and Nick Lowley, (who worked 2017s equally harsh predecessor Joy As An Act of Resistance), the cavernous power of John Beavis’ drums and the hypnotic, shrieking quality of Mark Bowen’s lead guitar, create a driving sound that propels this record forward.
On single ‘Grounds’, Bowen uses a lead guitar loop more akin to a synth than a stringed instrument, and then we are hit with some whiplash-inducing bass and drums. Almost sounding like a punk-inspired orchestra, Joe Talbot repeats the sloganistic refrain ‘’Do you hear that? / It’s the sound of strength in numbers’’. That sound is Idles.
Throughout this album, Talbot is characteristically charming and commanding, cackling and screaming along to the apocalyptic ‘Model Village’ and ‘Anxiety’. At one point he even addresses critics of his often cliche lyrical style, asking on ‘Mr Motivator’ ‘’How d’you like them cliches?’’
On an album where the music does so much of the talking; from Talbot mimicking the sound of gunshots and swords on the opener ‘War’ or dissonant, howling guitars mimicking the feeling of a panic attack towards the climax of ‘Anxiety’ – at points, the lyrics feel like an accessory.
That’s not to say that interesting lyrical themes aren’t explored
Quite the opposite. On ‘Model Village’, Talbot exposes the prejudices (‘’I’m not racist but’’) and circumstances that lead to the problems of village life (‘’they haven’t got much choice in the village’’). In this dissection, Talbot lands just on the right side of exposing these village views and having a genuine understanding of the oppressive conditions that have caused them. Pondering on villager’s nostalgic nationalism, Talbot laments ‘’Just give them an anthem and they’ll sing it / Still they don’t know the meanings in it.’’ As zeitgeisty as ever, Talbot questions the glorification of our colonial past and the historical amnesia in our education syllabuses (‘’Not taught by teachers on our curriculum’’).
Talking about the track with Apple Music, Talbot assures that the song isn’t meant to be an attack on anyone, but instead a ‘call for empathy’, and opportunity to take ‘’yourself out of your own town and look(ing) at it like it’s a model village’’. Out of all of the tracks off the album it’s probably the one that Talbot has spoken about least, with the directness and clarity of his words doing most of the talking.
Sexual harassment in punk spaces
On ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’, Idles also tackle another zeitgeisty issue; sexual harassment. Spawned from the band’s first-hand experiences of overly aggressive ‘‘pricks’’ in crowds during touring, ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’ calls out obnoxious, rowdy and invasive men at gigs. The inclusion of Jehnny Beth, who was interested in sharing vocals when Idles were recording a live performance for her French TV show, adds a refreshing feminist legitimacy to their anthem, something absent from other male bands who try to chime in on similar issues.
Speaking about the track, Talbot described how it was important to have a female voice, because ‘‘it’s more often than not that women get groped’. Although stating the obvious, Talbot’s words and intent with this song signify an angered urgency to change things in both in live music and in life, for the better. For a punk band with a primarily male audience (especially in a live context), this change in narrative is certainly significant, with Talbot and Beth screaming ‘’Consent!’’, exclaiming ‘’this is my dance space’’.
Album closer ‘Danke’ functions as the musical and lyrical full stop to Ultra Mono. The track is dynamic, loud and harsh, but notably contains the statement ‘’Love will find you in the end’’. Albeit overly sanguine, Idles close off the album by wearing their political and emotional heart on their sleeve. They are unapologetically angry at the world, and they think this is how we should fix it. Whilst at times Ultra Mono can feel like it’s box-ticking topical political issues, the importance of addressing them can’t be underestimated.