Title: Ultra Mono
Label: Partisan Records
Genre: Post-Punk / Rock
Released: 25 September 2020
“There's nothing brave and nothing useful
You scrawling your aggro shit on the walls of the cubicle
Saying my race and class ain't suitable
So I raise my pink fist and say black is beautiful”
The rush of adrenaline that was coursing through my body when I first listened to IDLES’ latest album “Ultra Mono” was insane. I’d just finished work and it released at midnight just before I was about to drive home. And I literally had to pull over after the very first song because I was physically sweaty. Anyone who has listened to IDLES before knows that they’re an extremely maximalist band; the music sounds absolutely huge, and frontman Joe Talbot’s presence is grand and fearsome. And “Ultra Mono” is no exception in this: from the very first track ‘War’, IDLES sound absolutely incredible. The production is literally breath-taking on every song here, and their compositions are just as captivating. But despite this, “Ultra Mono” unfortunately still falls flat in comparison to its excellent predecessors, mainly due to a huge dip in the quality of the lyrics.
While “Brutalism” and “Joy as an Act of Resistance” tackled a wide range themes such as toxic masculinity, socio-political inequality, death and grief with a level of nuance, “Ultra Mono” instead feels like a shallow exploration of its corresponding subject matters. Songs such as ‘Anxiety’ and ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’ even feel almost like parodies of the band’s music, taking Talbot’s emphatic vocal style and reducing his lyrics down to incredibly simple and uninteresting buzzwords. The latter of these two tracks literally has Talbot shouting “CONSENT! CONSENT!” for around half the track’s runtime. And while I absolutely want a song from IDLES that addresses the much-needed-to-be-discussed topic of consent, (especially considering the bands largest audience demographic is young males) I wish they had tackled the subject with the same degree of sophistication and nuance as they did while talking about toxic masculinity on songs such as ‘Collosus’, or ‘Never Fight a Man with a Perm’.
“This is my dance space
Ne touche pas moi
They’ve been criticised in the past for being a “motto band”, which is something that Talbot even addresses in the track ‘Mr Motivator’, sarcastically throwing lines like “How’d you like them clichés?” in reference to lines that are clearly parodying stereotypes rather than using them. And while this would be a valid argument for him to make in relation to “Joy”, or “Brutalism”, the oversimplification of a lot of “Ultra Mono’s” writing makes this line feel pretty ironic in the grand scheme of the album. In the case of ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’, what should have been an absolutely essential track unfortunately becomes one of their worst written songs, which is disappointing after seeing how well they addressed similar themes on their previous records.
And it isn’t just ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’ that is the singular offender of this either. After the first listen of the album (which was extremely exhilarating), the cracks started to really show in the rest of its lyrical content. While there are some exceptions, such as ‘Model Village’, which is excellent through and through, most of Ultra Mono is really lacking in the quality songwriting that the band have shown themselves to be capable of. Even the opening track, which on first listen left me absolutely ecstatic, is painfully straightforward on subsequent revisits.
That's the sound of the sword going in
Clack-clack, clack-a-clang clang!
That's the sound of the gun going bang-bang
Tukka-tuk, tuk, tuk, tuk-tukka
That's the sound of the drone button pusher”
But the real question is whether or not “Ultra Mono” holds up as a decent album despite this. After all, as I mentioned before, it’s an incredible sounding album. And although I’m either unimpressed or at odds with a lot of the album’s lyrics, something that has absolutely held up with every single listen that I’ve given it is how great it sounds. Whether it’s the roaring and glitchy guitars on ‘Grounds’, the sombre ‘A Hymn’, or the insanely frenetic ‘Mr Motivator’, the best aspect of the album by far is its aesthetic quality. And the fact that there is almost no weak link whatsoever with the album’s sound really does help counterweight its underwhelming lyrics. The album is an absolute ride from track one to track twelve, and if you go in for the energy alone, then this will most likely be your favourite IDLES album.
The album has a great flow too, never losing its momentum until a shift in dynamic is absolutely needed towards the final few songs with ‘A Hymn’. And the lyrically stronger moments on the album; ‘Grounds’, ‘Model Village’, and ‘Carcinogenic’, are at least placed well enough throughout that the record is balanced as well as it could be.
“Cramming people into high-rises, while selling their welfare for low prices
Public spending gets big slices, while ignoring the true crisis
Where were you when the ship sank?
Probably not queuing for food banks
Probably waving your Union Jack”
But it doesn’t really change the fact that the bar was really dropped with a lot of the writing here. And while the incredible production and composition somewhat makes up for the underdeveloped lyrics, especially on initial listens, it doesn’t do enough to save “Ultra Mono” from being the band’s weakest work yet. It’s not bad by any stretch, but it’s pretty disappointing aside from a few tracks which manage to deliver lyrically and instrumentally. Listening to “Ultra Mono” is a sweaty, adrenaline pumping, and invigorating experience. I just wish it had the same level of incredible writing as its predecessors. As a big fan of the band, this wasn’t really the album I was hoping for, but it’s entertaining enough that I still found a fair bit of enjoyment in it. They’re a really young group who have a lot of potential still ahead of them. And although “Ultra Mono” might have been a bit of a speedbump in their otherwise so-far-excellent discography, I’m interested and hopeful for what they’ll put out next.
“I want to be loved
I find shame in the crack-like corpse un-cadaver reign
I want to be loved
Reviewed by Layton Bryce - 01/10/20