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England’s Screaming: Brutalism, Idles Album Review

Well, reviewing this album now may seem like bandwagon-jumping, what with it having been released in March last year, with the band now blowing up, and I really hope it does seem like that. I actually was exposed to Idles around last March or April, when a friend posted the strange, angry, gutpunchy video for the song Mother on my Facebook page, and I took to the band right away. I was going to write about the full album months ago, but real life got in the way: post-relative-death-despair, brief homelessness, moving into a new home, and a whole heaping helping of other chaotic things I won’t go into. So I’m just really getting round to it now. Suffice to say last year was horrible, so fuck it; better wordslinging late than never.

You ever hear a record that hits you at exactly the right wrong time, and knocks you for six? You have a brief tempestuous drunken fling with it, being thrown into a mad headspin cycle by the fucking thing, then come out of it brain-battered and bruised a week or three after, wondering what the fuck sort of artstab tornado just hit you? No? Well, you’ve never lived. It doesn’t happen very much as you get older, but when it does it’s good to know that music can still kick you in the cock or cunt, that it can and will still fill you with love and hate and anger and energy and disgust when it feels like it, just to remind you it always has had that power over you, and always will.

That is exactly what happened to me with Brutalism, which is named after the harsh concrete-using architectural style that was in vogue for a couple of aesthetically challenged decades in the middle of last century. The Devil will make work for Idles hands to do indeed; the album is a primal scream therapy dedicated to the deceased mother of lead singer Joseph Talbot. It’s a beautiful, ugly, confused, raw soundwound of a dejection song collection, and, to be honest I’m writing this to see what I think about it, to set down a few mercurial transient thoughts in concrete words.

When I finish after an initial heavy fling with an album, I normally can’t go back to it for a long time. But this one is different. And by the way, I know all this me-I-my talk is fucking emetic, but it’s necessary. Not like you’re paying to read it. You want brevity, go play in the Twitter superhighway traffic. I played this album so much for several weeks I got sick of it. I had just bought a second hand car and the album was initially the only CD I owned, bought specifically to drive and think and escape to. I went away and came back and can still listen to it constantly (on my headphones right now), biting night and fighting day, drowning in kitsch-and-think dirty realist soundwaves, the wrong sonic crime at the right fucking time.

So the songs are now overlaid with a thin inescapable patina of disparate glittering images to me: driving through to Culross with my uncle Gary, and us exploring the old stone-stumble crumblefuck abbey there; me ignored-summer-speeding round the empty back roads of Falkirk and jumping out and playing the album to horses (highly recommend the concept of a mobile equestrian disco; these poor beasts don’t get anywhere near enough music of any sort, except maybe the Black Beauty theme played by their precocious teen girl owners); battering through to the Pineapple in Airth as I howled along; driving Andrew Leavold down to Manchester from Falkirk with his Lost Films of Weng Weng show and playing the album to him; and just generally feeling all of Central Scotland open up to me in my newly-mobile state with these strange, psychotic-sounding songs as a preternatural propulsion soundtrack. I was in mental and emotional Hell, just wanted to going-going-gone get far the fuck away, and my car, and this album, helped me do so. Which is ironic, given the subject matter of the songs, but headspinspiration and escape velocity manoeuvres sometimes come when we least expect them, so we just need to take our touched-nerve irrational rations when and where we can.

Brutalism starts with some insane-sounding Irish woman screaming “NO SURRENDER!” It’s an unfortunate start to a production, in that it briefly pulls things in a sectarian direction that has nothing to do with the subject matter of the album. Except the cry itself, shorn of Protestant connotations, kind of does: it’s a statement of intent, in that the singer (this is mostly his own personal Hell album) and his motley crew of mentally unbalanced and impoverished song-painted characters will not be surrendering to life and its myriad obstacles and challenges anytime soon or, indeed, ever. It’s a proud tattered standard to wave over the ruins of life damage, a bleak laugh in an uncaring I’m-still-standing universe, a black flag of fuck-youosity where there should be a meek white hanky raised on a stick to let cruel and harsh life know that the assailed artist under fire here has given up. But giving up is for sad impotent fuckers, and eternal escape is not an option: never has been, never will be.

I read and video-watched a few interviews with Joseph Talbot when I was in my initial fazed listening phase. As far as I can gather, he was heavily into drugs and alcohol around university age and his mother saved his life, then her tragically dying threw his brain out of synch, staggering from one existential crisis to another. So this album, of course, reflects this imbalance and stretched-thin sanity tightrope he appears to have been sleepwalking across for a long time. It’s an album where the man is a square peg trying to fit into a round life hole; middle class existence does not suit him and he can’t quite bring himself to embrace it. Still, he would have to admit it’s nice to have the option of upward mobility and stability; many don’t. So the whole album is just his long Ginsberg-like Howl (without the motorcycle cops getting cocks whapped up their chocboxes) at modern life in the UK, what it does to people, and his frantic angry Procrustean attempts at fitting in.

The first song, the pun-titled Heel/Heal, dives right in at the deep end, and the album mostly doesn’t let up from there on in until. Drummer Jon Beavis batters force skins to kick and punch us off. “I want to move into a Bovis home/And make a list of everything I own/And ride into the amber setting sun/Marching to the beat of someone’s drum/I’m done/what fun,” sarcastically sneers the singer. He sees the only way to heal from his self-inflicted wounds is to come to heel like a dog, whistle while you work yourself to death with a protesting work ethic, buy into materialism and consumerism image-mirages…and he can’t handle it.

He chants the song’s few lyrics like a manic mantra during the song, sounding like he is trying to convince himself of the truth of what he is saying until, by the end (of his tether), his voice is distorted and screaming in angry psychological and emotional pain and humour. I genuinely think that Talbot’s vocal performance on Brutalism is one of the best I have ever heard from a singer. Well, he’s not so much a singer as a screamer, a ranter, a choker, a wordswords-swallower, a blasphemy-phrase throat-itcher, a sanity’s-end banshee of no uncertain self-doubt. He has looked along the tired dying English middle class future line and seen it’s blandmined, a Hieronymous Bosch landscape of buying an unfinished home from a dodgy housing company and then counting your material goods blessings, and rinse and repeat.

The second song, the mockingly-titled Well Done, kicks off sounding like flies hovering over a corpse in the hot summer sun of death. It displays Talbot’s sarcastic, sneering, seditious, vicious sense of humour again, taking a stab at peer pressure and, again, societal conformity, spitting rudely on third-rate icons of middle class pretension and tension like Mary Berry and Trevor Nelson. I must say, this album is educational – I had to look up both these people to find out who they are, as I despise telly and do not own one. So thanks. Joe, for the heads-up on this sorry, sordid cunty popcult shite!

A word on this album musically: it is absolutely fucking superb from start to finish. The sharkfin-slicing-through-the-songs guitars of Lee Kiernan and Mark Bowen, the urgent staccato batter drumming, the sleazy fuckstain bass of Adam Devonshire…it all works in perfect sleazy bumpngrind skincrawler concerto, churning out a gorgeous set of songs that are the best I have heard musically in many a year. I know exactly why I like this album, incidentally – it often reminds me of the first Dead Kennedys album Fresh fruit For Rotting Vegetables, which (cliché alert!) changed my life when I was 16. So all’s well that ends unwell.

The third song, Mother, is…difficult. As I said, this was my first indecent exposure to the band. In the video, the singer, wearing a pink suit, no shirt, and with tattooed chest on display, smashes a table full of icons of historically-female domesticity: ornaments, knick-knacks, carriage clocks, etc, on the floor, as the band, looking like In Utero-era Nirvana, play in drag. It’s all very faux-feminist and masculine-feminine. Talbot is clearly feeling real pain and anger in this video, and it was this that initially attracted me to the band. It’s such a revelation to see somebody singing who actually seems to be feeling something, anything, now, let alone about as important a subject as parental death.

You can see grief and madness and torrents of torment roaring through him as he limbers up, as if for a prize fight, then smashes up pottery and history. It’s a very confused, weirdly Freudian song, with the grief-stricken singer seemingly trying to fuse vague half-feminist comments on the interplay between men and women in general, and his own loss and longing for his deceased parent (whose ashes he had pressed into 100 records and sold them for £100 a piece), screaming “MOTHER…FUCKER!!!” several times. He sings about how his mother worked long hours and, for somebody who clearly revered her as much as he did/does, there must be a hefty dollop of guilt in hating the hard-working class upward mobility that she stood for, and not wanting it.

This album has been hailed by the usual, career-invested, tired, cliché-spraying music press types as being ‘political,’ but I would have to say I don’t really personally find it that way. If the personal is political, the personality on display here is apolitical, aside from making a few vague, amorphous statements during only this song (from the whole album) about Tories. These middle class, wannabe-trendsetter music journo types clearly see the experiences of themselves and their peers reflected in the material, so praise it to the rafters.

Through DJ Steve Lamacq’s (he of the unfortunate Richey Manic ‘4 REAL’ incident) championing of the band, they have become a cause celebre among the chatterati types. Normally I would plague-avoid any band crowed over in the English media and played on BBC Radio 6 (whatever the fuck that is) and critically feted at poser career-pimping horseshit like SXSW, but this is the one single occasion when I have to make an exception. The interviews I have seen with Talbot and Mark Bowen (who looks, humourously,  like he’s constantly out of his face on ecstasy) are totally hilarious and sharp-witted and the music, of course, really stands up.

When I first started reading about the band, I confess I recoiled. I was reading interviews where they were talking about nauseating, braindead American-middle-class concepts like ‘white privilege’ (the name of a song here) and such self-loathing, hand-me-down drivel. But it’s the sheer velocity of the music and despair and anger and self-loathing vitriol on this album I keep coming back for, not the hardly-consequential, shallow bemused ‘political’ musings. You just can’t fucking beat the music and screaming on this record! Period. And as for it being ‘post-punk,’ well, that’s a meaningless catch-all-and-none rubric (technically, all music coming after punk is fucking ‘post-punk,’ no matter what its style), so let’s move on.

Date Night (horrible Yank phrase for the weeknight when married couples fuck each other) is up next, an exhausted take on listless, unpassionate sex between damaged and uncaring and disconnected (drugged?) partners. “Cause I guess we was born to fail,” Talbot notes, in one of his worst lyrics. I saw one interview where he was talking about the horrendously overrated Bukowski, and how that dead old hack alkie had what it took to write about “crap sex,” where the singer himself didn’t. I find Talbot a competent enough versifier but, to be honest, very few of his lyrics really stand out to me and, always having been obsessive about lyrics since I was a teenager (what with growing up on the likes of The Smiths, Madness, The Pogues, Foetus, The Macc Lads, Black Lace, and Bananarama), this is always how I judge a band.

But it’s odd. What the singer lacks wordworkwise he more than makes up for vocally. His larynx-stretching screaming, howling, yowling, snapping, snarling, scowling, barking and raving vocal style is unprecedented, to me at least, and his voice is used as both an instrument and a deadly weapon to blunt-force traumatic scenarios into the listener’s ear and psyche. The somewhat listless words and vocals thus complement and fill each other out perfectly, with some yip or yap or rant somehow perfectly communicating what the lyrics don’t quite have the articulacy to pull off.

Joseph Talbot, on Brutalism, sounds like the kind of unhinged, eternal-internal-war-fighting guy you’d throw a bucket of water over at 3 a.m. from your living room window as he stood drunkenly hurling fractured curses at an uncaring dark sky…and it works perfectly. I love it. Johnny Rotten and Mark E Smith echo in his delivery. He sounds like every insane Dennis Hopper character rolled into one, with a touch of UK cinematic madmen in history thrown in for good measure; Begbie and Don Logan fighting it out in a sack until the end of fucking time. His peerless, ear-piercing,  life-fearing screams are precise, clipped, calibrated doses of madness, a managed apocalypse, insane method acting singing. Where the lyrics can be oblique, even limp, the screams are real and articulate and get every point they try to make across with force and poetry and occasional sightings of queasy comedy. “Compensate with humour, or if really bored then sing,” he wryly notes in (ack!) White Privilege, but never takes himself up on his boredom antidote by doing anything so base as – sniff haughtily – singing.

Just a wee brief note on song titles like Date Night and White Privilege. As anybody who knows me knows, I cannot stand modern American thought or slang, which has basically brainwashed people over here into thinking and talking like white middle class or black rapper Americans, which is a depressing prospect indeed. I think any writer on this side of the Atlantic now needs to be very aware of the insiduous, slanguage-STD-transmitting nature of American social media and grouptalk, and how it affects the thought and language being used in lyrics or general wordwork.

It’s too easy now, and lazy, to reach for the (anti) ideological or verbal tropes of a rogue bullying state drowning us all in endless waves of shit popcult telly and music and films and books and apps. Why the fuck people still think braindead American popular culture is ‘cool’ is beyond me; more and more it’s just shit sci-fi or superhero films for people who never want to grow up. This rubbish needs to be looked beyond for more original and interesting methods of expression if an artist wants to be seen and heard as more than just a tired, second-hand-cliché-waving wannabe-American parroting faddish applapped fuckbucketry.

This is a general gobservation, not only applying, obviously, to this record. Just wanted to make an artistic point, because it’s one that needs to be made. Forcefully. Sick of hearing the English language being turned into a drizzle of derivative drivel from across the Atlantic. You’re not ‘cool’ because you pick up and use some mangled-slangbanging Yank phrase-du-jour in the correct context, you’re just an unoriginal cunt. And if you want to be a real and serious language-sculpting artist, this is a serious problem. Putting it mildly. If you think this critique might apply to you, and want to write, go back, think about your thought processes and use of language and where they come from, and jettison all the modern American flotsam and jetsam from your aesthetic. It’ll do your artistic communication powers the power of good, trust me.

The next song up, Faith in the City, sounds to me as if it’s about going to AA when you’re fucked up and getting some help from God into your life to save you. It may well not be about this at all; sometimes the lyrics are not focussed enough to be rendered completely clear in meaning. And this is not being poetic, it’s just not great writing. Christ, I am coming off like a crotchety English teacher here. Great! Let’s continue! Anyway, there are sometimes lacunae in Talbot’s clearly-wannabe-poetic expression that leave things open a bit too much to spinterpretation. He sings of his uncle with cancer, then of an alkie called Mikey, both of whom derive strength from religious faith. “I’m evangelical/1234/Praise the Lord,” Talbot solemnly intones in the last lines. He does come off oddly like a preacher in some of the excellent live footage I have seen of them, waving his hand over his head like some godbotherer about to heal the sick or something.

And that’s another thing: this band are dynamite to watch live (never seen them play, yet; they’ve been too busy playing America and mainland Europe and England for the last nine months to play Scotland, apparently, though they’ll be here next April), and you just don’t know what is going to come next from them. They hop spryly round about each other, Talbot screeching and screaming and smiling and grimacing, Bowen sometimes wearing only his manky scants, and there’s a real sense of fun and electricity in the air. This should go directly against the grain of the seriousness of the subject matter, but somehow the nonstop kinetic onstage madness only adds to the angry poignancy and deranged entertainment of the whole enterprise. This is a band that look like they don’t have a fucking clue what the Hell they’re doing, and are having great fun doing to, so that’s just fun beyond belief to watch. Makes a change from the usual staid, boring, prosaic effortless-cool fartslappers the rich-kid-infested Mercury Prize-cocksucking music(k) scene throws up (in our laps) at least.

1049 Gothko, the next miserabilist brutalist minimalist ditty, deals with deep dark despair and depression. Apparently the band’s next album is about mental health, which is definitely a very urgent and modern problem. England is going through some sort of psychotic episode, as is its world-arming-and-harming former colony America, with xenophobia and insular retrogazery writ large across their ugly countenances, imploding and black hole-feeding on themselves and their poor, and it’s fucking up a lot of hearts and minds, austerity-murdering a lot of people. In part that’s what this album is about, in general: the lives of life-smashed, educated people with huge student loans to pay off and only zero hours contracts and minimum wage jobs (if they’re lucky) to pay them off with, disappearing through drink and drugs, a Ken Loach film in song, Oliver Twist for the 21st century, please sir can I have some more escape, dirty-kitchen-sink hyper-realism a seen through a stressed and cracked and fractured clashing middle class crashview. Wouldn’t be so bad if these psychotic, inept, inbredneck Westminster Tory cunts weren’t dragging (in their parasite view) resources-colony Scotland down the pan with them, but that’s a whole different political conversation. Suffice to say, the next indyref…will not go like the first one did.

As I said earlier, this album is nowhere near as political as it is being wrongly hailed as, which is why the next Big Black-alike song, Divide and Conquer, whilst excellent, really frustrates me “A loved one perished at the hands of the baron-hearted right/Divide and conquer” (‘baron-hearted’ is the correct spelling, and is totally perfect for the subject matter) are the only lyrics. If you didn’t watch the video, with its flashes of statistics, you would scarcely get the idea that this is about the death of the old NHS in England (Scotland is a different case right now, thankfully) at the hands of the Tory scum to sell it off to America, to suck the blood dry from sick people as they do in their own horrendous no-regard-for-human-life country. If you’re going to address an important subject,be direct; times are too late and grim now for oblique posturing. Then again, it’s not like a song is going to change anything, so what the fuck does it matter? If they did a 20-minute version of this could-be-zeitgeist-surfing song, it would have people marching in the streets with pitchforks and torches and aristocrat-mangling malice in mind. As it is, the excellent video perfectly sums up the impotent frustration and rage and hate you feel when a loved one is assailed by the finances-cutting forces of political vermin, or indeed, inadvertently, even by the stretched-resources NHS itself. It’s a good fucking song anyway, and makes me want to smash fucking windows, which is always the mark of good art to me. That or if it gives me an erection, but I suppose those two states of arousal can be interchangeable sometimes. Though try explaining the latter to a glazier when you have a cut dick, and see where it gets you.

Rachel Khoo is the next song up. Another person I had to look up on the net to know who the fuck she is. Like Mary Berry, another televisual cook, another symbol of domesticity. Song’s really about being wasted on “cheap drugs and expensive wine.” Talbot mentions his father, “a sculptor by his trade,” who helped make the sculpture that adorns the cover of the album, alongside the photo of Talbot’s mother. The song mentions Caravaggio, and the singer often mentions painters (more on which in a minute), so he clearly comes from an artistic family. And the uselessness of an artistic degree, or even artloving outlook, in modern England, is clearly another wee thread running through the album. Not a great song.

Speaking of painters and all that highbrow artstuff. Stendhal Syndrome mercilessly parodies people who don’t like or appreciate, and indeed even mock, galleries and painters and artists. It’s a funny song, and the video is hilarious, with the big bald cunt from the band with the beard (not sure of his name, sorry – laughing here) leaping aboot in art galleries to the confused bemusement of various random punters. “Did you see that selfie what Francis Bacon did?/Don’t look nothing like him, what a fucking div!” From his constant mentions of painters and poets and such in interviews, Talbot is clearly a bit of a sniffy aesthete art purist, but his caustic and barbed sense of humour redeems this poncefoppery. Song sounds like the Dead Kennedys doing the Rawhide theme tune, mixed with the Sex Pistols doing God Save the Queen. This is by no means a bad thing. Let’s mooooove ‘em out!!!!

Exeter sassily assails our getting-weary ears next. Kind of generic, sleazy, violent, bored, bit more pleading Jesus (Talbot has a Frida Kahlo tat on his hand, and we are potentially picking up a vibe) for help. Hilariously, the song names 15 people (including the delightfully-named ‘Shit Eyes’) as guys “in the bar for a bar fight.” Must be one of the most violent bars in the world!

Benzocaine is my fave song on the album. One of those fuckers that you just play over and over and over and over again as you drive along wherever whenever, speedo up and down as you remind yourself to calm the fuck down round hard corners or known copsucker-prowled areas. Fast and despairing and Dead Kennedys as fuck. There is a bit of vocal delivery on this song where Talbot sings “I think it’s a crime/That when you look in your baby’s eyes/you won’t see mine.” The way he sings it is just stunning. The song is about getting wasted on drugs to numb you to pain, and the baby in question could be a guy’s thinking about his ex looking into a new guy’s eyes, or a real baby she had to somebody else. I don’t know and don’t want to.

I just know that the slomo jawclench pain-suppressed way he scream-sings it is one of the best vocal delivery-cum-lyrical-syntheses I have ever heard. See, that’s what I like about his vocals: he is doing this shit without a tightrope template, no real idea how to sing what he is singing, so he just blurts it out and it all always just works somehow. A new form of singing style, and that is extremely rare. I know that the character from Sleaford Mods burble-blurts his stuff a bit, but seeing as how I have never heard a delivery from him half as energetic or interesting as any on this album (Special Brew drawlery is not fun), I know who wins hands down.

The aforementioned White Privilege is another “One miscarriage, two abortions, one degree, seven jobs” song; bit more Jesus, bit more dying middle class. It’s certainly a sight better than the last song, the horrendous Slow Savage, which closes out the album in the worst possible way. It’s a slow, unsavage song, completely out of synch with the rest of the speedy tunes preceding it, sounding like an Arab Strap outtake, as Talbot promises/warns that he’ll be “the worst lover you ever had.” This song really is a bad misstep, to me. It brings the album to a complete grinding halt in a way it shouldn’t have. If this song was left off it, this album could be one of those perfect speedy albums, like Reign in Blood by Slayer, or Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, that you can listen to right through from start to finish without skipping. And we all know how rare those are. Still, in my universe, and on the version I copied from my CD to my PC, this song is gone, and the album sonically flawless. I am an idealist at heart, and can sculpt my own revisionist sonic perfection, so fuck it.

Still, not even this nonexistent-to-me misfire can truly detract from the harshly beautiful, confused, bountiful cumulative impact of Brutalism. This is the band’s first album; I believe they’re already recording their second. They only ever released a couple of indie-dependent-sound EPs before this, and I certainly hadn’t heard of them before. Their other earlier stuff sounds mostly different, fey, twee, unchallenged (“Totes random!”) and uninteresting. Looking at the band in the old videos is like looking at a whole different group from the contemporary one. I know I for one will certainly be waiting for the next release with baited breath when it comes out. I just can’t get enough of dancing and driving to somebody else’s pain. And with the way things are going in Brexit Britain, there should be a whole lot of agonising ammo for the band to feast their fevered sound on. The last page of the CD has a single quote on it: “Don’t go gentle.” This is, obviously, a truncation of the title of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem, Do not go gentle into that good night.Judging by the content of this album, I don’t think we need to worry too much about that for quite some time.

END

Special thanks to Steven Miller, for allowing me to crash at his place for two weeks last September, and for turning me onto this band. This is all your fucking fault, Miller!!

 

About Graham Rae

Graham Rae has been writing about weird and wonderfueled cinematic oddities for nearly 30 years. He started off writing for the legendary Deep Red, and since then has been bounced around like a human pinball around such venues as Film Threat, American Cinematographer, Cinefantastique, and Realitystudio.org.. A selection of his genre writings are available at www.facebook.com/raewrites, and he runs a Mad Foxes page on Facebook too. You have been warned.

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