December 2019, Leeds: the atmosphere at that Idles gig, precisely one week before the general election, is one of positivity, a hope that seven days forward Britain can take a giant step towards reunifying itself after the years of post-Referendum division. In party mood, the Bristol group’s stans – also known as the AF Gang – are chanting “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” to the tune of Seven Nation Army, singer Joe Talbot happy to indulge their optimism. It is, with the sort of typical understatement we of this isle like to use, a nice evening.
One week later, all of that hope was blown away. The country did not pivot left, indeed voters went in the exaggerated, opposite direction. Anyone rooting for more of what Idles have come to stand for – inclusivity, community, diversity – found themselves having to come to terms with a Britain now to be ruled by a far right cabal with all the empathy of a snake.
To paraphrase the band’s own handle, all was clearly not love. But if as time passed there was a vague, uneasy feeling that the quintet’s second album Joy As An Act of Resistance had boiled their messages down into something in form just too simple as a trade-off for accessibility, Ultra Mono smashes any fears of a lingering intra project hangover inside the first thirty seconds of opening track War.
The conflict in question isn’t between tribes but as Talbot has explained with ourselves; having relapsed into alcohol and drug use after a long period of sobriety, the track’s acrid, jack hammer punk is a cast iron metaphor for the elevated levels of self-doubt involved after letting people down.
Elsewhere the enemies are without; Grounds punches out the haters with the breezy catch all put down “Not a single thing has ever been mended / By you standing there and saying you’re offended.” On Carcinogenic the triumphalist victors of last year’s electoral mess are in the cross hairs, the lyrics delivered matter-of-factly, like Talbot reading poetry, or a manifesto, whilst Model Village pokes middle-Britain and its not-so-closet prejudices firmly in both eyes.
The power of their debut Brutalism may have returned, but its ferocious economy of effort comes courtesy of hip-hop producer Kenny Beats, whilst Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow is present on Anxiety and The Lover. Oddest stand in of all though is the presence of MOR piano hugger Jamie Cullum, who adds a sense of calm to the opening bars of Kill Them With Kindness. The notion of a collective at work is hard to escape.
If the abrasiveness looks forward to a future on the streets with fists clenched in pockets, Ultra Mono’s peak isn’t a fight song; A Hymn’s brooding post punk scratches glass and mainlines in all our fears and frustrations, the word shame reverberating as Talbot searches for a passport from all our collective guilt.
Maybe the day will never come again where we can embrace each other without concessions; on Ultra Mono Idles have called the past a different country and made an intense but courageous record, mostly for who they love and those who love them.