It seemed like a long time between IDLES releasing their brilliant sophomore album ‘Joy as an Act of Resistance‘ in 2018 and the follow-up ‘Ultra Mono‘ last year. Alternatively, it feels like ‘Crawler‘, the new album, came out of nowhere. IDLES has been on a tear since their monster debut ‘Brutalism‘ was released in 2017; writing, recording, touring, although much of that was interrupted over the past couple of years. Unfortunately ‘Ultra Mono‘ received mixed reviews and had quite a few detractors who didn’t care for its sometimes sparse arrangements, preachy lyrics, and guest appearances. Perhaps it doesn’t reach the heights of ‘Brutalism’ or ‘Joy as an Act of Resistance”, but it is still a solid slab of adrenaline-driven punk.
Those detractors should be pleased with ‘Crawler‘, although the 14 tracks find the band further stretching out their tentacles, experimenting with effects and textures. Lyrically the band continues to move through issues of addiction, recovery, grief, self-identity, the effects of the pandemic, and gratitude. ‘Crawler‘ certainly helps provide opportunities for catharsis. “I tried to be more of a storyteller than I’ve ever been before,” Talbot says. “And more poetic, which I think is more honest, in an ironic way, than trying to be as blunt and down the line as possible.”
The opening track is an immediate standout. ‘MTT 420 AR‘ slithers into Nick Cave territory as Talbot recounts a near-fatal motorcycle crash he was involved in and reflects upon his own mortality after years of addiction with the pulsing soundscape building intensely in the background. We wait, we expect it, but the huge IDLES blast never really comes and the song dissolves with Talbot growling ‘are you ready for the storm?”. He must mean ‘The Wheel‘ because the epic pounding rager kicks the door down as soon as the opener fades. ‘The Wheel‘ takes the Ant Music romp to the wall and is sure to be a live show favorite. Its subject matter is heavy, as Talbot continues to seek solace from the pain of alcoholism and being haunted by family trauma.
‘When the Lights Come On‘ is a dark gothic dirge, drawing from Sisters of Mercy and Joy Division and ‘Car Crash‘ sounds like it’s from the soundtrack of Squid Game with its warning siren and apocalyptic trip-hop swagger. It’s like Rage Against the Machine running on low batteries.
‘New Sensation‘ is not an INXS cover, but a straight-ahead IDLES punk rager with an absolutely dirty bass that takes aim at a British Member of Parliament.
“I was reacting to Rishi Sunak, who’s a politician in the UK. He said during the pandemic that we all need to re-train in the arts and media'” Talbot says. “Instead of subsidizing the arts and helping anyone out in this country, they suggested that we just get new jobs during lockdown. The whole thing is a Rishi Sunak right cross to the fucking jaw. I was obsessed with the idea of not having guitars on it, but (guitarist) Bowen arrived.”
‘Stockholm Syndrome‘ is another IDLES pounder with a buzzing swarm of fuzz set to what Talbot calls “an aggro marching band song.” But the real standout is ‘The Beachland Ballroom‘, a track that illustrates why I love this band so much. Taking a northern soul feel and stretching their sound out to limits that challenge folks who only want to hear a rehash of ‘Brutalism‘ or ‘Joy As an Act of Resistance‘, Talbot pours his vulnerability into his voice, singing softly at times, screaming at others. This is a brilliant song. Throughout the album, the guitar work of Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan is out of this world, testing the boundaries of what a punk band does and the rhythm section of drummer Jon Beavis and bassist Dev are as solid as they come.
“Being able to write a soul tune like this made me go, fuck—we’re at a place where we’re actually allowed to go to these big rooms and be creative and not just go through the motions and really appreciate what we’ve got,” he says. “The song is sort of an allegory of feeling lost and getting through it. It’s one that I really love singing.”
‘Crawl!‘ is driven by the solid jackhammer percussion of Beavis and ‘Meds‘ is a little post-punk egg punk ditty. ‘Progress‘ is a dark dreamscape that uses Imogen Heap vocoder/effects on Talbot’s voice. This track just grows and grows and grows on you and I have a feeling this will eventually be the go-to track here. There are a couple of interludes like the pulsing ‘Kelechi‘ and ‘Wizz‘, a blistering 30-second hardcore smash. It’s quite a tease and I almost wish IDLES would lay down something in this vein a bit longer. ‘King Snake‘ with its Gang of Four buzzing bassline and jumping beat follows the early IDLES blueprint, while the thunderous ‘The End‘ is sure to be another IDLES live favorite with the crowd joining in unison: “In spite of it all, life is beautiful.”