July 11, 2023

Idles - Ultra Mono (2020)

Country: United Kingdom
Genre: Post Punk
Label Number: PTKF2186-2

© 2020 Partisan Records
On their third record in almost as many years, Idles are at their most anarchic, dialing up their comedic edge -- often including cringe-inducing, Police Academy-style sound effects -- and their manic energy. To call Ultra Mono terrible would be disingenuous, as it is still some of the most vital music being made; however, it does include the first notable misfires from a group who could seemingly do no wrong. Lyrical content aside, the band themselves are either over-committed, as with bassist Adam Devonshire's increasingly unhinged backing snarls, or underwhelming. Guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan have few standout moments between them, demoted to creating dissonance or raising the volume, which they admittedly pull off admirably; contrast this to their debut, with tracks such as "1049 Gotho," where Bowen's searing lead guitar steals the show. It is hard to fault drummer Jon Beavis, whose consistent thumping has managed to stay fresh over three records. Taken at face value, the elements that make Idles great are present, including the social commentary, the sense of humor, and the cathartic justified rage, and as such, Ultra Mono will fit nicely into their live shows, although it's unlikely to produce any highlights.

The opening moments of the album play out in familiar territory, from the explosive opener "War" to the panic attack-inducing "Anxiety," save for the sparse arrangement of "Grounds," which is either a bold new vector in the Idles formula or a slightly awkward step in the wrong direction. Around the midpoint is the contentious "Model Village," which drew concern over its apparent dig at village life and the far right -- U.K. cities have their fair share of right-wing characters, after all. Painting in such broad strokes goes against the band's inclusive ideology, bearing in mind that their early tours included many smaller venues outside of the cities. Then there are the guests, including Jamie Cullum, who provides a genuinely funny moment as his serene piano intro gets interrupted by the band crashing in on "Kill Them with Kindness," and the ever-electrifying Jehnny Beth adding extra venom on "Ne Touche Pas Moi." As for Warren Ellis, David Yow, and Kenny Beats, their presence is all but imperceptible, only decipherable via internet research. The inclusion of such heavy-hitters is easy to be cynical about; it's the equivalent of name-dropping but adding nothing to the conversation. Of all the singles, "A Hymn" was the most overlooked. Here, in the context of the album, it comes as welcome respite; dredged in tension and played seriously rather than comedically, it's a side of the band that deserves to be explored.

Idles deserve praise for their invigorating output, which avoids getting mired down by bleak outlooks, literary references, or overly poetic lyrics. Without applying any analysis, there is much to enjoy here; their raucous energy shines just as bright, but underneath the surface Ultra Mono lacks the sparkle that made their first two records truly special.

 tags: idles, ultra mono, 2020, flac,


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