IDLES – Brutalism

by Jon Burke Rating:9 Release Date:2017-03-10

The worst thing I can say about IDLES’ new record, Brutalism, is this: No matter how critically or commercially successful Brutalism is, it won’t be enough. This is the album literally everyone needs to be listening to in 2017. This is an album kids need to hear more than anything – simply to ensure our way forward as a democratic society. Brutalism is Never Mind the Bollocks, It Takes A Nation…, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables and Bad Brains, all at once, crammed into your ear canal and afterward, shaking and overcome, you’ll only want to play it again. Given the criminally underwhelming state of popular music, to have something as beautifully aggressive as Brutalism appear without any fanfare… well that just screams for a hyperbolic review. Here goes:

From everything I’ve been able to gather on the internet, IDLES are a noisy, post-punk, five-piece from Bristol – a location holding absolutely no meaning for my ignorant American ass. That said, whatever is going on in Bristol is also going on here because IDLES are just as pissed-off as I am. In a mere thirteen songs, IDLES attack every aspect of modern consumer culture from the creation of products (“Mother”) to the myths underpinning the sale of products (“Faith in the City“) to the pressure to consume products (“Well Done”); even the very demand for products (“Heel Heal“) is taken to task. If there is a single driving ethos propelling this album forward it is made clear literally five seconds into track one when a young woman abruptly screams: “No surrender!” Listeners looking for a relaxing experience probably shouldn’t bother with Brutalism lest the lack of pulled-punches leaves them bruised and bloodied in a ditch, just off the M32.

The album opener, “Heel Heal” plays like the blood-soaked hate child of Big Black and early-Nine Inch Nails. Thunderously intense drum programming, a wall of foil-shredding metallic guitars and IDLES frontman, Joseph Talbot, shout-talking, and eventually screaming, about “marching to the beat of someone else’s drum”. The whole thing is an exercise in the beautiful simplicity of aggressive rebellion: volume, rhythm and a singalong is all it takes to move the masses.

After their brain-resetting minimalistic opener, IDLES decide to flaunt their talent with songs bringing each instrument, however briefly, to the fore. The first reaction to these brief talent showcases is that the band’s rhythm section is frightening. Drummer, Jon Beavis, and bassist, Adam Devonshire, either practice separately from the rest of the band, or communicate telepathically, as their lockstep synchronicity has an almost militaristic precision. The track “Mother” serves as a prime example of the pair’s greatness. Devonshire’s concise bass sound is immediately reminiscent of Joe Lally’s work with Fugazi. For his part, Beavis seems to effortlessly lock-down a tight-but-varied rhythm which Talbot nearly begins rapping over: “The best way/ to scare a Tory/ is to read and get rich!” Similarly, “Date Night” and “Rachel Khoo” both put Devonshire’s bass out front for equally compelling results.

“1049 Gotho”, named for an asteroid, seems to be IDLES’ attempt at a pop song. Though it’s as loud and aggressive as any of Brutalism’s tracks, Talbot’s lyrics of urban despair are clearest here. The song seems to be about the depression and loneliness present in our superficial modern lives – even while dating – that wins-out over happiness every time. Nearly crying, Talbot whines: “My friend is so depressed/ He wishes he was dead,” and then chants “I guess this is as far as we go,” over and over.     

Though it’s a rocker, track seven, “Divide and Conquer” is mostly just Talbot repeatedly shouting “Haa!” The song does offer guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan a chance to showcase their brilliant squall. Similarly, “Stendhal Syndrome” quickly develops into a buzz saw cacophony of guitars with Talbot shout-waxing poetic about art and culture and taste and how meaningful/less they can be. One wonders if “Stendhal Syndrome” is a shot at the value of criticism in general given Talbot’s belief that perceiving the beauty in art or its lack of beauty are equally valid perspectives.

The slower, more deliberate, “Exeter” and “Slow Savage” completely redefine the range IDLES had established with the rest of the album. These tracks plod along, though occasionally swerving dynamically, giving the band the chance to spread out, play with dynamics and occasionally explode with rage. “Exeter” seems to be about the dangers growing out of the boredom of small town living. “Slow Savage” is an, nearly four-minute, open-heart apology to Talbot’s ex, for whom, he was the “worst lover [they] ever had.”  

In a very brief 40 minutes, Brutalism confronts class and identity politics, along with a litany of other issues, head-on. It’s an incredible record. It is absolutely worth your time and money. Please do whatever you can to support this music because what Brutalism makes clear is that, as things get worse, we are only going to need more of it.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars