Thursday, May 11, 2017

album review: 'brutalism' by idles

I did not know what to expect going into this one. Seriously, I know I'm months late covering this album, it took a while to get up my schedule on Patreon, but even with that time to research I had the feeling like I was going in cold. I knew a few critics I respect liked this debut, but beyond that? Not a damn clue what I was getting into, outside of the fact that these guys were from Bristol in the UK and that they made some raw, furious music, dropping their full-length debut this year after a few EPs.

And you know what? I might not cover a lot of righteously angry music, but that doesn't mean I don't have my days where I crank some explosive stuff and go in hard, and I am a post-punk fan. A little less of a hardcore punk fan - a scene I'm still trying to get my handle on and work my way through the backlog of essential records - but that doesn't mean a really potent debut might not grab my attention. So what did Idles deliver with Brutalism?

Well let me say this: I've always made the statement that the best art, even if you can't directly relate to its themes or place of origin, can transcend those places and still connect with a wider audience. And even though I'm not fan of frenetic hardcore punk, I'm here to tell you that Brutalism is a damn great record and deserves a ton of attention. Man, I should have gotten to this earlier, because this is exactly everything I like in my punk music: fast, melodic, strong grooves, potent vocals, and with real insight and weight behind its social commentary that doesn't compromise its firepower. And yeah, the title of this record is not lying, because this record is visceral, nasty, and yes, brutal in the way that few records will approach this year.

And we need to start with production and instrumentation, and despite how I initially described Idles as pulling on hardcore punk, that's not entirely true. Oh, it's certainly there in the tempos and explosive, lo-fi vocals from the sneering powerhouse of a frontman Joe Talbot - and for the record, this guy is a monster of a find, taking the thick accent of English working class angst and fusing it with a real brain and a fiery temper - but this album owes a lot to post-punk as well, especially in the more prominent rattling bass which will often take prominence over the jagged spikes of atonal melody and relentless shredding. Take a song like 'Mother' - the bass has a relentless seething presence against the sharper kickdrums as the distorted guitar juts in with increasingly twisted melodic phrases before erupting into a blurred-together shredding that still manages to carry real melody and smuggles in a couple solos if you're not paying attention! Sometimes the songs aren't as bass-driven - the squealing hammer of two-note progressions on 'Well Done' that clanks off the creaking depths of the mix or the heavy kick-drum stomp of 'Divide & Conquer' where the grind of the riffs drops into lockstep for a punching march as the guitar line careens through the background, or the slightly more poppy hook around 'Exeter', utterly sarcastic even as the main guitar riff shreds or sparks into the darkness at least until the tempo subtly amps up with a little more bass to ratchet up the tension - but the majority of them are, and that leads to some phenomenal and yet distinct grooves.The choppy grinding instability of 'Date Night' that seems on the verge of flying off the rails at any second, even on the hook, the even faster gritty riff that holds 'Stendhal Syndrome' as it roars up periodically that's later echoed with even stronger melodic phrases on 'White Privilege', the most directly hardcore cut in 'Benzocaine' even as the guitars wheedle faster and faster, to the depraved darkness of '1049 Gotho' which might be one of the most haunting plunges into filthy nightmare fuel I've heard this year. Hell, even if I do agree that the hollowed piano piece 'Slow Savage' doesn't fit all that perfectly with the rest of this record, it still does capture the mood ridiculously effectively, just with a little more modulation.

But if we're going to talk about where Brutalism steps up in spades, its the content and themes - and yes, of course this is going to get political, but Idles have been refreshingly candid about how little they care when they plunge forward. And I can see why they have that confidence, because when it comes to great political art, Idles checks off all three P's. I've already talked about the power in their instrumentation, and they nail the populism by being unafraid to speak truth to the powerfully ignorant and stupid. Take 'Well Done' - the instrumentation already captures the tension of the track, but what makes it so viscerally satisfying when it does cut loose is the slap back at the basic middle-class gentrification pushed down upon them as a way to get out of poverty.  'Faith In The City' gets to this too, except instead of cheap consumerism it's religion as the song bleeds with sarcasm.  And it's telling how much Idles uses British cooking hosts to epitomize that tradition on songs like 'Well Done' and 'Rachel Khoo', where in reality if you're not paying into their system the wealthy couldn't care less about failures in education and economics - hell, on 'Divide And Conquer' it needs few words to describe how privatizing health care by splitting those who would defend it apart would end up leaving people dead.

But where Idles really rise above comes in that third 'P': precision. And it really is stunning how much nuance they manage to cram into these songs despite language that is so blunt, or how on songs like '1049 Gotho', 'Exeter', 'White Privilege' and 'Heel / Heal' they not above holding a mirror to themselves and their audience. Take the last of those, as they freely admit they'd love to be able to afford a Bovis home and count their money - they aren't immune to wanting things - but they utterly despise the smug condescension used to sell it to them - they aren't saying they aren't like you, just that they don't like you. Or take the recklessness of 'White Privilege', which shows off people able to avoid some of the consequences and party hard and go wild - a privilege that non-white groups don't have in the same way. Or take 'Exeter', where poverty and boredom and overcompensating masculinity lead to bloody mayhem over and over - for as much as the narrator wishes that something would happen, the consequences of that wish could get grisly. Or go to 'Date Night', which on first listen might seem like a relationship that's being held together for appearances and little else, but then you get to the second verse and one partner wanting to lead and cause changes... but just like in the relationship, when confronted with society they shut their mouths. But the two songs that really stood out to me thematically were 'Mother' and 'Stendhal Syndrome'. In the first, we have a case where the protagonist's mother works desperately to propel her son out of poverty and scare those Tories... except there's no appreciation, as he just stares at the pretty colors of the TV, and even if he were to get there, it's not going to purge the systemic sexism and disinterest, which are entrenched in educational structures. But 'Stendhal Syndrome' was the song that really got my attention, which on the surface seems to be savaging post-modern art that certain wealthy art dealers scoff at as something even they could do - but Talbot is snapping back that for as much as they can do it, they don't actually take that step, because that would require defending and engaging with the art beyond pseudo-intellectualism... which might as well summarize the whole theme of the record. Yes, it's brutal and hellish, ugly and explosive, which to some would reflect a seeming lack of sophistication of the performer and audience and working class - but by doing so, it misses the point why that brutality exists, and the system that perpetuates that rage and ignores its underlying causes.

In other words... hot damn, I was not expecting to like this as much as I do, and even if I don't have the broader reference points in post-punk and hardcore punk to fully compare this, this was the shot of adrenaline and fury I needed today, to the point where I have trouble finding real flaws. Maybe a few of the guitar lines could have brought their blurred over melodies a little closer to the forefront to match the presence and sparking edge of the grooves, and again, 'Slow Savage' is a bit of a clumsier note to end the album, but this is still a very strong 8/10 and easily a recommendation. Yes, I know I'm very late to the party on this one, but if you haven't heard it yet, it's definitely worth a lot of listens - check it out!

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