The Bristol band’s unrelenting debut stares down the ugly truths all around it and demands better.
The other day on his BBC Radio 6 program, mainstay DJ Steve Lamacq had Bristol band Idles in the studio, and at the end of the interview, he remarked that they were a band that has come along at the right time. Lamacq didn’t elaborate on what exactly he meant by that, but his sentiment was honest.
Most likely he wasn’t talking about Idles being in a prime position to capitalize on trends, as abrasive punk isn’t generally a lucrative business these days. Idles also haven’t just come along recently. Their debut, the Welcome EP, came out in 2012. Their second, the Meat EP, didn’t follow until three years after. As singer Joseph Talbot noted to Lamacq, they had to push through some not-so-great songs to get to where they are. That is pretty much every band’s origin story, but Idles were perhaps a little more on the perfectionist side of the spectrum than might be apparent when confronted with their barely controlled demolition sound for the first time.
Buried under all the rubble are some damaged but resilient pop sensibilities, the prime example being Brutalism’s lead single from last fall, “Well Done”. In classic three-and-a-half minute’s time, “Well Done” reveals the surly bastard child of Blur’s “Parklife” (“Well done!”) and McLusky’s “To Hell with Good Intentions”, bouncing and hurling itself around with Talbot recounting all the ways he should be more like UK media personalities. There is no line between anger and humor here; they are one in the same.
Same goes for the uproarious “Stendahl Syndrome” (named for a kind of panic brought on by viewing great art), which puts Talbot in conversation with an imaginary lowbrow critic who views Page 3 girls -- a longstanding ‘column’ in the UK tabloid The Sun -- as the highest form of creative expression. “Did you see that selfie what Francis Bacon did? / Don’t look nothing like him, what a fucking div, I tell ya / Did you see that painting what Basquiat done? / Looks like it was drawn by my four-year-old son, I tell ya.” Perhaps it’s indicative of the current state of public discourse that, despite the chorus of “Forgive me, you sound stupid”, some listeners took the lyrics at face value, forcing Idles to clarify their position by tweeting that “it’s fucking irony!” Surely it’s a bit outdated to presume that a band making this kind of racket would rather smash high art than celebrate it.
Brutalism is bracing, caustic, and relentless from the speed-tweaked industrial drum beat that lights the fuse of “Heel Heal” to the final confessions of “Slow Savage” at the end. It is also one of the more clever and articulate rock records you will hear this year. When it gets political, it succeeds where so many others fail: staying on point. “The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich," Talbot repeats in the anti-misogynist sledgehammer “Mother”, nailing the point home without deviation. Idles aren’t the only ones catching on to this: check out the video for Manchester band Gnod’s “Bodies for Money”, where the words “just say no to the psycho right-wing capitalist fascist industrial death machine” play over and over again for the entire song.
When My Architect came out in 2003 and fueled recent reappraisals of Brutalist architecture, one point the documentary made was that the harsh, military bunker-like concrete exteriors of these buildings were poured around idealist notions about the future of post-war society. Idles, too, are idealists, and the fury of Brutalism is defensive reaction to the failure of that post-war society, and sometimes their own failure, to live up to those ideals. It would be reasonable to expect a lot more music in the coming few years to wade into this conflict, and in fact you can see it beginning to happen in some corners. If Idles are the right band for right now, that’s partly because they’re willing to stare down the ugly truths, even those in the mirror, and demand better.