Grade: 2.0 / 5.0
To IDLES, the world is a violent place. It is also a clear-cut, black-and-white place, as emphasized by the title of the band’s new album, Ultra Mono. The crushing drums and twisted guitars are vicious and quick, and they underline the band’s message with the grace of an elephant and the subtlety of a brick.
“War” starts off the album with a clear emphasis on IDLES’ concept of violence. Sounds are described explicitly — swords, guns, thunder and drones are all specifically called out in the lyrics. These sounds — loud, booming, brutal — serve as the bread and butter for Ultra Mono, which is a smorgasbord of the loud and aggressive.
But this is not to say that Ultra Mono endorses violence, even if it is a violent album. Instead, IDLES uses the album’s violence and noise as an antagonist of sorts, a leviathan to overcome. Lead singer Joe Talbot roars and groans over the churning fury of “Model Village,” decrying racism and homophobia on one of the album’s most head-bobbing songs.
“Head-bobbing,” however, may not be the compliment it normally would be. With a proposition of sonic brutality as strongly made as “War,” the listener expects something to bang, rather than bob, their head to. Ultra Mono often comes close, but it never quite reaches that zenith of loudness it needs to emphasize its own themes of conflict.
“Ne Touche Pas Moi” comes the closest to emulating a thrashing mosh pit, and this is almost certainly deliberate. The song addresses personal space and bodily autonomy, its chorus ending with shouts of “Consent!” There is no room for delicacy here, and threats of violence are called against those who would intrude upon the rights of the individual.
If subtlety is a virtue, then IDLES are among music’s greatest modern sinners. Ultra Mono has all the subtlety of “Conor McGregor with a samurai sword on rollerblades” — one of many images used on the song “Mr. Motivator” to jokingly play up the band’s reputation for cliche. However, the acknowledgement of platitudes does not excuse their overuse. In fact, such acknowledgement backfires, turning the songs on Ultra Mono into incomprehensible word soup.
On Ultra Mono, the listener can sense that the artist is at odds with the art. There is clearly an inner conflict being dealt with here — but to what end? Lyrics bluntly indicate support of a variety of social movements, but these lines come off as non sequiturs. Talbot certainly wants to voice his sociopolitical beliefs, but in doing so, muddles the album’s supposed conflict: With such strong convictions, what internal dispute can really exist?
The guitars rage without a real purpose; the drums bang without cause. The fundamental problem with Ultra Mono is a lack of focus. It tries to fool the listener with abstract notions of violence, but it doesn’t really connect these notions to any recognizable or comprehensive theme. It is a juvenile album, one that is mad as a hornet with no understanding of why and no direction in which to turn that anger.
For the most part, Ultra Mono is forgettable. The memorable moments are often the most banal, filled with meaningless sayings and pointless anger. The rare moments that are both memorable and enjoyable are deviations from the norm, the exceptions that confirm the rule: The guitar on “Carcinogenic,” for example, or the piano on “Kill Them With Kindness.” The album certainly has enjoyable moments like these, but they are few and far between, and rarely connect with one another in an insightful way.
The real obstacle to the success of Ultra Mono is the fumbling of its core idea: It’s an anti-violent message, told violently. A human, internal struggle — one that calls into question power dynamics and personal relationships — could have made for a vibrant and compellingly frustrated album. But throughout Ultra Mono, the relationship between lyrics and music remains uncertain, and this fundamentally thwarts its potential. Instead, the message is simply loud and brutal. If violence begets more violence, IDLES doesn’t really seem to care.