Tuesday, September 4, 2018

album review: 'joy as an act of resistance' by idles

When I reviewed Idles last year, I was a very different person - specifically, one who hadn't exactly developed an appreciation for hardcore punk. I had brushed against the genre over the years, but I wouldn't qualify myself as having in-depth knowledge or even a liking for the genre... and thus it was all the more startling how well Idles' debut Brutalism clicked for me, a howling, guttural grind that was also fiercely intelligent and the sort of political polemic that could hit like a ton of bricks. Both it and the song from it '1049 Gotho' wound up on my year-end lists, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't kickstart some deeper curiosity that contributed to putting hardcore punk as an option on Resonators.

Of course, now it's eight months later, and with a much deeper knowledge base around hardcore punk, I was anticipating this record all the more but my expectations were even higher. The fast turnaround time was a bit concerning, and it wasn't like Idles didn't have problems on their debut, and while embracing a spirit of riotous optimism in the face of dark times is an attitude I can get behind, I wasn't sure Idles was the act from which I wanted to hear that message - my favourite cuts from Brutalism had been some of the darkest and angriest, so this was looking to be quite the tonal shift. But hey, it was either this or Eminem, and I wanted to start on a high note, so what did we get out of Joy As An Act Of Resistance?

Honestly, this was exactly what I needed from Idles, the sort of frenetic but sharp as hell wallop that drills deeper into the themes and arcs that characterized their debut and an emotive core that might not be as dark, but is definitely potent all the same. Hell, there's a very real possibility that it might be better than Brutalism, or at the very least more consistent and accessible in its framing and subject matter once the references are decoded. In other words... yeah, believe the hype on this one, folks, Joy As An Act Of Resistance is going to wind up among the best of 2018, and for damn good reason.

Now if you're familiar with many of the tones Idles brought on Brutalism, you'll probably have a firm idea of what is driving their sound: jagged basslines, efficient drumlines, roaring, noisy guitars, and the huge vocals of frontman Joe Talbot that split the difference between thickly accented guttural roars and an uncanny melodic sensibility when he needs to wrench a hook in line. And yet when you brought it all together with the sort of sharp but defiantly punk production, it made for a cacophonous wallop splitting hardcore with post-punk, more than once flying off the rails into compositions that'd could be as unpredictable as they were heavy. Of course, that did contribute to Brutalism winding up more uneven than it should be, especially in the slower passages that showed Idles weren't exactly great balladeers. Well, if there was anything that the band was looking to quash this time around, it was this, starting from the rattling, grinding build of 'Colossus' that would become even more apparent on the spacious dirge of 'June', which not only showed Talbot embracing a more melodic singing voice but also production that took a much grander scope. And while I can see some seeing this as sanding back some of the raw bass edge that was so central to the grooves of Brutalism, the switch to featuring heavier layers of guitar with borderline tremolo riffing only serves to punch up the manic catchiness of hooks for songs like 'I'm Scum', 'Television' and 'Danny Nedelko', and I'm not going to complain about Talbot showing off more convincing dramatic range! I'll come back to this, but when Talbot described this record as having some influences from oi! music, especially in the construction of the vocal layering on the hooks and melody lines, they're mining the best possible elements, like the brighter jingles of percussion and progressions riding the still prominent rumbling bass like on 'Great' and 'Danny Nedelko'. Hell, when you compare these to songs like 'Gram Rock' and 'Rottweiler' which could easily be cuts from Brutalism with the slightly muddier, lo-fi mixing and more slapdash composition, the progression can't help but seem like a net positive.

But it was also a progression that was needed for the content, and to get into that, let's circle back to the usage of the oi! subgenre to describe this project, because Talbot framed it a little different: 'snowflake oi!'. And that qualifier puts Idles into interesting territory, shedding the skinhead and right-leaning connotations that unfortunately came to be associated with the subgenre after the original wave for no less than a furious but layered deconstruction of toxic masculinity. Now with Idles approaching this subject, deconstruction was going to be inevitable: there's always been a sneering veneer of guttural irony at the core of Idles' work especially through Talbot's delivery, but where Brutalism trended towards nihilism, Joy As An Act Of Resistance flips the script for something more optimistic, damn near upbeat at points as Talbot parses through a mingled blur of frustration, confusion and grief. Emphasis on the last one, because as songs like 'June' mention, his daughter was born stillborn shortly after the release of Brutalism last year, and along with the passing of his mother from a prolonged illness, the struggle to reconcile such heavy emotions with the ongoing conversation surrounding masculinity is a messy one... and one all the more courageous for Talbot's choice to find some sort of light at the end of the tunnel. 

And the sheer juxtaposition could seem almost hilarious, such a guttural presence roaring about the need for vulnerability and men to embrace tolerant acceptances, become the colossi of passionate emotion in the face of distant father figures and larger society preaching an uncompromising and narrow view of male emotion... but once again Idles proves themselves smart enough to both embrace the wry humor of the situation on tracks like 'Love Song' and 'Gram Rock' but also put forward how such a nuanced openness might not just be necessary in coming years, but forward-thinking or even welcome to deal with deeper societal wounds, speaking loud and proud for the rights of immigrants on 'Danny Nedelko' and 'Great' and queer folks on 'Colossus' and 'Samaritans' and a great cover of Solomon Burke's 'Cry To Me'. And while Idles has always been immensely quotable, here they're more than willing to crib and interpolate from artists like Nancy Sinatra and even Katy Perry to drive home a point against those who would prey on weaknesses to divide us instead of a raw emotive core to bring us together, nearly bookending the record from 'Rottweilier''s screed at a demonizing tabloid to 'Never Fight A Man With A Perm', which takes a set of tortured, coked-up funhouse mirrors of masculine projection and after the bloody melee is able to hug things out - how punk of them in the best way possible.

Folks, if you've been looking for the right point to hop on-board with Idles, Joy As An Act Of Resistance is damn near a great one: more refined and catchy but no less layered and insightful, furious but funny and occasionally heartbreaking, this is the sort of punk rock with the brains and firepower to set a powerful narrative - in the larger culture war surrounding society and gender, this is a heavyweight contender, snowflake oi! that nevertheless can trigger an avalanche. A forward-thinking picture of what men can deliver in the modern age that's nuanced, vibrant, human, and frequently hilarious, it's one of the best records of 2018, netting a 9/10 and absolutely a recommendation. And if you're beset by those who would preach a narrow or regressive view of what men can do or be - you all know the type, especially on YouTube - this is the album to shove in their faces. You'll be doing them a favour.

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