❉ “A short, sharp bracing racket, in the lineage of the Gang of Four school of post-punk.”
Brutalism: the prevailing architectural style of the post-war decades. As the name suggests, it was a no frills, ugly style that eschewed any aesthetic pleasure in favour of the grey functionality of concrete. It dominated (and in many places still does) the urban landscape with high rises, shopping centres and office blocks. It’s a byword for grimness and the bleakness of urban decay. By that token it’s a brilliantly chosen name for the debut album from Idles.
Brutalism the album is a short, sharp bracing racket, thirteen tracks and over and done with in 42 minutes. It’s in the lineage of the Gang of Four school of post-punk, the anger and brevity of punk itself filtered through taut blasts of compression and distortion. It opens with a shriek of ‘No surrender!’ (a tad disconcerting when you’re a Belfast resident) and blasts you away with brutalised guitars with vocals sounding like the missing link between Jimmy Pursey and Johnny Rotten. It’s a touch deceptive though, with Well Done being closer in tone to the rest of the album. Name-checking Mary Berry, Trevor Nelson and ‘Tarquin’ (irresistibly bringing Viz’s Modern Parents to mind) in a rant about the parental expectations, it’s irresistibly reminiscent of Sleaford Mods. The spectre of Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn never quite goes away for the rest of the album – both set rants about working-class life in the austerity era over a punishing musical background. The main difference is Idles never sound as if they’ve fallen out of love with guitars, so while this is a self-described ‘real bastard’ of an album they’ve got a weapon or two more in their armoury.
The fuel for the album is very clearly the current government and its policies – quite something for a regime to generate such anger in what’s essentially a seventh year in office. Mother knows ‘the best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich’ the song’s subject has succumbed to despair, they ‘know nothing… just sitting here looking at pretty colours’, Faith in the City tells us ‘there’s no jobs in the city’ and album highlight Divide and Conquer, a self-professed anthem against the dismantling of the NHS, has a bleak mantra of a loved one ‘dying at the hands of the barren-hearted right’ (or possibly, and even better, baron-hearted). The grey concrete of the cities has bleached away hope along with any urban colour.
Admittedly, while each short, sharp blast is an individual thrill the one emotional note of constant anger is a touch wearing over the length of an album, particularly when you’re bombarded with lyrics which add cancer of the lungs and brain and depression to the generally despairing atmosphere. Slow Savage is therefore something of a relief to close with, a slower song of self-disgust to ease the listener back to reality with the comparatively minor self-condemnation that singer Joe Talbot is apparently ‘the worst lover that you’ll ever have’ almost counting as comic relief but ultimately speaking of someone utterly ground down by modern Britain. The anger’s still there, but boiling under the surface rather than exploding as it does elsewhere. That’s perhaps the album’s ultimate point: that in Brexit Britain there’s a rage building beyond the Twitterstorms and politics. It’s an album that takes the 80s rage against the Thatcher regime and seeks to focus it against the likes of May, Johnson, the Tory right and Farage. While it’s good to know the rage exists, the uncompromising nature of the album means it’ll be preaching to the converted. But then if they’re looking to set fires, they’ll be starting in the right place, with the most flammable material. Maybe it’ll be the only way to add hope to the brutality of modern poverty.
❉ Idles – ‘Brutalism’ is out 10 March 2017 on Balley Records.