Ultra Mono is quite a roaring and experimental record but often lacks direction when it comes to addressing political issues.
Following the release of their critically-acclaimed sophomore record, Joy as An Act of Resistance in 2018, the Bristol post-punks IDLES have recently returned with their follow up effort. Given an extensive world tour and endless positive buzz around their past releases over the past couple of years, Ultra Mono was undoubtedly going to result in becoming one of their biggest records to date.
The band recorded the album at La Frette Studios in France over the course of the past year, with a handful of collaborators. In terms of the production, the punk quintet worked with producer Nick Launay — who has previously worked with Talking Heads and Kate Bush — and Grammy nominated engineer Adam Greenspan once again. The band also worked with the highly requested hip hop producer Kenny Beats while having both Warren Ellis from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Jehnny Beth on a few tracks.
IDLES released a handful of singles prior to their release which really set the tone for what to expect. Having made their mark onto the punk scene with their brutally honest and political music critiquing capitalism, toxic masculinity, racism, and Brexit, the band’s ethos has revolved around self-love, which is what this record is essentially about.
Their singles “Mr. Motivator,” “Grounds” and “Model Village” all consisted of the combination of clever lyrics and upbeat guitar-driven instrumentation which seemed to be quite reminiscent of their previous work. In fact, all of those tracks manage to grab people’s attention within the first few chords. Although the singles suggested another excellent number by IDLES, there are a few uncertainties when it comes to the band’s intentions with their message, as it comes across as disingenuous.
The record commences with “War,” which is both loud and eerie, consisting of a clash of instruments to create this huge sound building up. Frontman Joe Talbot commences his verse with by screaming “Wa-ching,” and continues to use onomatopoeia to describe war sounds in this effort to create an anti-war anthem. Nevertheless, it appears as though he is making an attempt to have some profound commentary on how war is evil without actually making any commentary.
Whether it be through hilarious analogies or direct call-outs, IDLES have never shied away from telling it as it is. “War” both lacks direction and does not really offer any critiques. Instead of making some great points about why the band is anti-war, Talbot would have gotten his anti-war message across better if he sang about those issues instead of mimicking cannon sounds.
Despite being buried in uncertainties and lacking a clear narrative, Ultra Mono does have its highlights. The second single, “Grounds,” is definitely one of the album’s best tracks given the contrasting effect between the clear percussion elements, the layered heavily distorted guitar riffs, and the closest we’ll ever get to hearing Talbot rap. The production is also reminiscent of a hip hop track, which creates a nice contrast from “War.”
Nonetheless, Talbot culminating his last verse with “So I raise my pink fist and say, ‘black is beautiful,’” was quite unnecessary and highly offensive. This implies that Black people require validation from white people in order to feel secure in themselves. Although Talbot might not have intended to sound offensive, comments of that nature made me question whether the band’s intentions with composing political music are genuine.
Additionally, many IDLES fans including myself were not impressed with “Ne Touche Pas Moi,” which was purposely worded incorrectly and consists of a riot grrrl-esque song about consent featuring Jehnny Beth on the backing vocals as a finishing touch. The thought of having cisgender, white men write a song on behalf of women and femme-identifying people just does not seem right.
The most consistent and interesting element of the record is its instrumentation as IDLES manage to move away from their signature bass and percussion-heavy, minimal-guitar-effects sound. With this album, there is quite a focus directed towards creating intricate and powerful guitar riffs through the experimentation of guitar pedals. Ultra Mono demonstrates their growth in terms of musicianship which is admirable and presents a glimpse of what to expect from the band later on in their discography.
Trial Track: “Grounds”