On Ultra Mono, the thrill is gone for Idles’s signature punk brashness.


Credit: Russel Oliver / Partisan Records

Verdict: Idles can still pull punches, but their punk brashness has been commoditised into a punk brand.

High expectations are dangerous when it comes to music, especially for the liberation-through-punk style of Idles. I’m guilty of placing that upon them; my love for the Bristol 5 piece is immense, and in this god-forsaken year, a new studio release from them seemed like it could be a saving grace.

Their third album starts not with a song, but with a letter included on the record sleeve. “Momentary Acceptance of the Self” is its title, appearing like an election slogan, and the following paragraphs read like a manifesto. They proudly declare that Ultra Mono is a “big fuck off ox that carries us through the sludge”, with its resolution from this sludergy being, quite simply, love.

Pretenses aside, that’s a hard principle to disagree with. Britain is in a right state of sludge at the moment; it’s having a political identity crisis and a generational personality clash all at once. Left and right grow farther apart and reinforce themselves into vitriolic tribes that call the other side “woke” and “gammons”. The only reliefs we’re offered seem to be complaints to Ofcom about black people dancing on Britain’s Got Talent, the government telling us to go to the pub and then not to go the pub, and adverts for the toe-curling Times-sodding-Radio.

God help us all – love is exactly what we need more of right now.

“This, on the other hand, clobbers you with Twitter-friendly phrases that quickly start to grate.”

Ultra Mono, however, is not a record that has inspired love for me. It feels hindered by its sloganeering, listing off political themes without their usual nuance. The thrill that made their past two records so exciting and empowering has become a preach-to-the-choir style that ticks boxes. 2018’s Joy reveled in its witty ability to scald right wingers and starkly addressed toxic masculinity. This, on the other hand, clobbers you with Twitter-friendly phrases that quickly start to grate.

Chanting about how the poor are kept down within society on ‘Anxiety’ is noble for sure, but it comes across more as armchair political lecturing rather than a song that might actually give someone in poverty a reason to sing along. ‘Mr Motivator’s joking tone was a tremendous relief to lockdown boredom when it dropped earlier in the year, but on here, it feels like a list of unrefined jokes from a weak episode of Have I Got New For You.

The most conflicting bit of all of this is that the drive to enact change that has powered them thus far is still alive and well. I felt compelled to mosh along at points, but the trouble for me is that it too easily resorts to predictable easy-win tactics of “Tories bad, economy unfair, screw the critics”. Its a record that would have been perfectly at home on Labour’s 2019 General Election campaign – right ideas, wrong delivery – but we’re at a point where solutions are needed, and Ultra Mono offers very few.

So many classic punk records build themselves on easy-to-remember lyrics that can be repurposed as protest slogans, but here, I begged for the track listing to not to feel so by-the-numbers. Rather than feeling like a cohesive songbook to address our times – as their previous works have been – Ultra Mono‘s themes are a list of society’s ills, as though it had to meet a quota for online outrage.

“I felt played by its tone, as it happily flies by its flaws and has an epiphany over stating the obvious.”

Perhaps they’re being put under too much pressure. The momentum from two stunning back-to-back releases made it seem like Idles might liberate the nation’s masses from the Conservative party hell-hole we find ourselves in, and maybe it was too much to expect that their third album would continue that. The problem, however, is that this doesn’t just feel like a misstep or a trip-up.

Because it’s so proud of its blazing ‘love Trumps hate’-esque message, Ultra Mono ends up demanding that you agree with its surface level assessments rather than giving you reason to join the cause. I felt played by its tone, as it happily flies by its flaws and has an epiphany over stating the obvious.

All of these gripes aside, they do still have talent that shows itself beautifully on occasion. The onomatopoeia opening of ‘War’ is electrifying – don’t trust anyone who thinks that Talbot shouting “WA-CHING!!” isn’t exciting as hell. ‘Carcinogenic’ is a fruitful take-down of income inequality’s impacts, whilst ‘Model Village’ plays like a Chris Morris comedy about rural life, and had me laughing out loud on first listen. And then there’s ‘Grounds’, strutting its meaty bassline and self-assured lyrics in fantastic fist-waving fashion.

Indeed, it’s impossible to deny that the intentions here are good . But the agreeability drags when its delivery feels a like that of a self-styled Twitter political activist fawning for likes and retweets. It’s a shame that those more positive moments can’t cover for the rest of its track listing.

Expectations are a hard thing to match. After an incredible debut – 2017’s bludgeoning yet nimble Brutalism – and a sophomore effort that earned a spot on my favourite records of all time list – 2018’s Joy As An Act Of Resistance, the soundtrack for a family-friendly riot – every fibre of me wants Ultra Mono to reach those lofty heights. Rather than being a disappointment, however, it feels like a fan service record determined to convince you it’s going to ‘change things’.

Is it right to expect Idles to be the punk band that lead us into the light? Perhaps this is history repeating itself. Punk’s initial explosion was barely here for 3 or 4 years in the UK before its energy ran out of direction. A naive assessment would say that this too is history repeating, but that would deny the band of their more innovative moments on this record.

“Their punk brashness has become a punk brand, sold in a catch-all model line up.”

No. The problem is that they’re preaching to the choir in a time when political tribalism is eating the country alive. Idles don’t need to be the protest group that gets us all out on the street, but when they’re out here playing into the same tactics that have given us an incredibly vitriolic and nasty political lexicon – “snowflake”, “gammon”, “boomer”, “woke”, “Karen” and the like – it’s nothing short of disheartening.

Their punk brashness has become a punk brand, sold in a catch-all model line up. Want to tell people to get off their high horse? Try Track 5, ‘Kill Them With Kindness’! Are you angry about the Royal Family? ‘Reigns’ comes in your size and fit! There’s no captivation in this, just a feeling of being underwhelmed.

Where it’s not being so quota-meeting, Ultra Mono offers everything you’d want from an Idles record. You can’t knock its intentions to resolve society’s ills with love and loud guitars. No doubt its more bearable tunes will make for more outstanding live material, adding to their already gilded back catalogue. But as a complete package, this feels like punk to appease, rather than punk to be moved by. I spend enough time trying not to scroll through the political side of Twitter – the last thing I want to do is listen to a record cast in that same vein.

Score: 6.0/10

Munro Page

Munro Page is a music blogger and former student radio host based in Cardiff, Wales. He likes: thrift stores, cooking and parrots. He dislikes: chain restaurants, the M25 and Simply Red.