Since bursting onto the scene with their 2017 debut Brutalism, Bristol’s IDLES have had their credibility, honesty and reasoning questioned time and time again. Now, with ‘Ultra Mono’ – their third full-length album in as many years – they face even more scrutiny.
This outing sees IDLES at their most unruly, leaning heavily unto their comedic bite – albeit to mixed results, here – and their frenzied drive. To say ‘Ultra Mono’ is a bad album wouldn’t be fair or true as a lot of the material here is dripping with vitality, but it does contain some of the biggest missteps from a band who for the last couple of years at least have been at the top of their game.
Lyrics notwithstanding, the band are either over-the-top or lacking in vigour on ‘Ultra Mono’. Bassist Adam Devonshire’s background growls are omnipresent to the point of being overbearing, while guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan are reduced to mere noise makers. While on cuts like Stendhal Syndrome and 1049 Gotho this has been their calling card, it doesn’t come off quite as hot as it used to. Drummer Jon Beavis, meanwhile, is his usual consistently pulverising self.
On the surface, ‘Ultra Mono’ features all the bits and pieces that make IDLES who and what they are beloved for. The social criticism, the gags, the exorcising of righteous political anger – it’s all here. It’s just not as good as it used to be.
The opening moments, excepting Grounds sound like a band treading familiar water. War is a blistering opener, and Anxiety induces the titular feeling. The aforementioned Grounds hints at a newfound experimentalism and eclecticism in the IDLES songbook but its minimalistic aesthetic comes off stilted and awkward upon repeat listens.
Near the album’s halfway point is the questionable Model Village, boasting a riff that could’ve seen it placed in a recent downward punching Vice article had it been released ten or fifteen years ago. Lyrically, it’s portrayal of UK villages as hotbeds for small minds and conservatism go against the dialogue and acceptance that frontman Joe Talbot has been preaching for the last three years.
There are guest spots a-plenty, apparently. Jamie Cullum provides some amusement during the opening seconds of Kill Them With Kindness as the band’s chest-beating stomp comes crashing down on a pristine, twinkling piano motif. Jehnny Beth is as white hot and vitriolic as ever on Ne Touche Pas Moi but fellow luminaries Warren Ellis, David Yow and Kenny Beats are seemingly present in name only such is the ineffectiveness of their input here.
And then there’s the lyrics. While Talbot has been praised before for his childlike wordsmithing (take Danny Nedelko), one can’t help but feel like his act is growing a little bit stale. The individualist mantra “I am I”, repeated amidst some endearing pop culture references on Mr Motivator and again on Grounds, contradicts the collectivism of the refrain “Do you hear that thunder / That’s the sound of strength in numbers” on the latter track. The repetition of model this, model that, Model Village reaches a point of ad nauseum, while the onomatopoeia that makes up the lion’s share of War comes off as more of a point of limitation than ingenuity.
Special commendation should be reserved for Reigns and A Hymn, two of the finest moments in IDLES oeuvre. A Hymn provides a welcome change of pace and tone as the band play it straight, a side that has hitherto only been hinted at on deep cuts like Slow Savage on ‘Brutalism’ or June on ‘Joy…’. Reigns, erstwhile, seems almost out of place with the album but offers an interesting new sonic aesthetic for the band, one more than worth exploring.
IDLES’ acclaim to this point is well-deserved. Their music is exhilarating, and for all its literary and pop-culture references and limited lyricism, remains engaging. There is a lot to enjoy here but it’s not going to convert the uninitiated. As energetic as ever, ‘Ultra Mono’ quite simply lacks that bright spark that made their previous full-lengths special.