The highly anticipated, new full-length LP Ultra Mono from UK post-punk/art-punk band IDLES was released on September 25, 2020. Their 2018 album, “Joy as an Act of Resistance,” has easily become one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the 2010s, with hits like “Never fight a man with a perm” and “Danny Nedelko.” Based on the abnormal names, one can already foresee the band’s radical agenda. Let’s just say that this LP will definitely not be played in a church. However, you might hear this LP blasting if you find yourself at a bar fight between a bunch of hipsters in Ireland. The 43-minute project is full of abrasive, fast-paced rhythms with jarring guitar riffs mixed with powerful, catchy anthems. Ultra Mono is everything Joy was and more, with clean, precise production, a new array of sounds, and a more focused flow between songs.
The album opens up with an angry bass rhythm and thrashing drums on the song “War,” setting the tone for the rest of the album’s runtime. In this song, lead singer Joe Talbot shrieks as he describes war. “Clack-clack, clack-a-clang clang! That's the sound of the gun going bang-bang Tukka-tuk, tuk, tuk, tuk-tukka.” Although these lyrics may seem immature, with them comes a deeper meaning. The simple, almost childish onomatopoeia invokes the concealed reality of war, where young, innocent civilians get hurt. The straightforward yet cutting lyrics make the song’s anti-nationalist message resonate even more deeply.
Next in the tracklist comes “Grounds,” with a spiraling guitar ripple and bouncing drums adding musical depth. This song couldn’t have come out at a better time, as Talbot screams “Saying my race and class ain't suitable, so I raise my pink fist and say black is beautiful.” With the Black Lives Matter movement becoming more popular than ever, the band preaches solidarity and insists that privileged classes must do better. On songs like “Kill them with kindness” and “Reigns,” the instrumentals can come off as simple and repetitive. However, with expansive production, similar to bands like Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine, and meticulous mixing from Nick Launay, the album achieves a rousing and forceful sound that makes you want to rip up your homework and punch a wall. The constant sloganeering on tracks like “Mr. Motivator” (made with the help of legendary rap producer Kenny Beats) and hilarious lyrics on “A Hymn” make the album a fun listening experience and demonstrate the band’s uniqueness.
Like any great punk album from the past, Ultra Mono does not deal with subtleties or shades of grey; the establishment is the clear enemy of the album. They employ an abrasive political realism, calling for action and taking no prisoners. Because of that, Ultra Mono can be classified as one thing and one thing only: a protest album. Which brings us to “Ne Touche Pas Moi,” the seventh song on the project. The main theme of the song is bodily autonomy, which, frankly, is not addressed enough in music. Talbot’s blaring vocals squeal “'Cause your body is your body; it belongs to nobody but you.” Some critics feel that such a message should be delivered in a more understated manner, saying that IDLES messaging should be “blanketed.” However, these lyrics are too cognizant of the power it embraces to come off as sleazy or hurtful, giving the listener a moment to empathize and take note of what is blasting in their ears. Talbot and co. do not want to suppress their thoughts with subtleties and existential questions; they desire to hold up a mirror to the injustices of the world in a truthful and direct fashion.
Art-punk is special in that it has the capacity to portray the human experience and delve into the deepest matters of life in a straightforward, guns-blazing fashion. “Ultra Mono” fulfills the promise of art-punk, providing the listener with head-banging grooves and catchy riffs with an anti-establishment message. In today’s complex world, the uncomplicated righteous anger of IDLES is a welcome respite and captures the voice of an exasperated generation.