Brutalism is the first I, and many others, had heard of Bristol-based post-punk quintet IDLES. This debut album of theirs comes following a rather typical origin story, with the band having released two EPs in 2012 and 2015 respectively, whilst spending most of their existence honing their sound and playing at humble, local venues around the Bristol area. Despite such a simple backstory, the post-punk sound that has emerged as a result of the group’s extensive writing and re-working of songs is far from commonplace, to the point where, although IDLES self-identify as post-punk, the extent to which sensibilities lifted from hardcore punk, new wave and industrial rock are incorporated throws a spanner in the works when it comes to pinpointing their sound. A great deal of the group’s definitive stylings, however, comes from their frontman, Joe Talbot, whose witty, tongue-in-cheek, politically-charged ramblings come across as a more composed and less free-form alternative to Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods. Talbot certainly sounds as brazenly British as Williamson, both with regards to the inflection of his style of delivery and the political and cultural references on which many of his boisterous tirades are based. All things considered, therefore, there is no more apt title for this album than Brutalism, with regards to both the pummelling, industrial grit of the punk-tinged instrumentals and the brutal honesty of Talbot’s upfront performances and caustic lyricism.
The opening track, Heel / Heal, introduces the album just as one would expect from a record entitled Brutalism. The opening vocal sample leads into the song with a woman crying, “No surrender!”, at which point the fast-paced, energetic, muddy drumming kicks in with brute strength, as it pummels through a beat that feels somewhere between post-punk and industrial rock. The simple lead guitar line enters following a wail of ear-bleeding feedback, and Talbot comes through with one of his most melodic vocal parts on the entire record, with his chants sounding somewhere between a punk singer, like Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten or Crass’ Steve Ignorant, and a rowdy football fan. Heel / Heal certainly makes sense as the opening track, as it is one of the most simple in structure, but also highlights the extent to which IDLES put an emphasis on the way in which these songs progress rather than the ideas on which they are founded. The lyrics that Talbot sings over the first verse, for instance, are repeated by the singer throughout the entirety of the track, but it’s certainly easy to forget about this seeing as the song is so heavily focussed on dynamics, in that, as the cut charges forward, the energy is consistently cranked up through the addition of blaring, distorted guitars, rambunctious backing chants and increasingly messy production that climaxes as a wall of dirty post-punk noise. The following track, Well Done, builds on many of these ideas, but in a more focussed format, with another straightforward drumbeat carrying the instrumental, which is largely based around some forceful, accented power chord stabs as some swirling guitar cries can be heard in the background. Undoubtedly, however, the central focus of this track is on Talbot, both with regards to his performance and his lyrics, which honestly made me laugh out loud the first time I heard this song. The repetitious verses are sung from the perspective of a snobbish middle class spokesperson, or moral entrepreneur of sorts, offering backhanded advice to the lower classes as a means of feigning solidarity, but simply coming across as ignorant and condescending. This takes the form of Talbot quipping, with a sarcastic vocal delivery, lines like, “Why don’t you get a degree? / Even Tarquin has a degree / Mary Berry’s got a degree / So why don’t you get a degree?” The constant namedropping of food writer and The Great British Bake Off host, Mary Berry, is particularly funny, given the extent to which her and her fellow hosts have been elevated to the status of British middle class cultural icons of sorts. This being said, whilst this lines is undeniably humorous, that’s not to say there exists no palpable anger in the delivery. Indeed, many of the lyrics on Brutalism feature such a sardonic mixture of humour and anger that it’s hard to tell which comes first, in that the bitter truthfulness that Talbot is speaking may simply be funny because it’s so honest. For instance, a line like, “The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich” on Mother may have a comedic edge to it, but it’s delivered with such causticity that it’s difficult to discern whether or not the humour was even intentional. This is especially evident on Mother, given the final verse, which explicitly deals with sexual violence, thus providing some of the previous lyrics with a bleak context that alters the listener’s perception of the song in retrospect. What’s more, there are certain songs on Brutalism that are so frank and honest as to be completely scarce of any amusing edge, such as Divide & Conquer, which, outside of Talbot’s provocative, sarcastic laughs and repetition of the song’s title, features the sole line of, “A loved one perished at the hand of the baron-hearted right”, described by the band as “an ode to the disembowelment of our NHS”. Indeed, the forthright and hypercritical lyrics of Brutalism are typically the main focus of the album, but they are often made all the more pervasive and powerful by both Talbot’s snide, nasty delivery and the oppressive ferocity of the industrious instrumentation supporting them.
Shifting the focus back towards the musical side of things, it must be said that Brutalism is a record that reveals most of the tricks it has up its sleeve rather early on in the record, with many of these songs adhering very closely to the blueprint that IDLES lay out for themselves on this album. Indeed, the industrial drumming, meaty bass lines, punk power chords and raucous singing are all recurring musical themes that show up on every track on Brutalism. This being said, however, a band like IDLES can certainly be forgiven for closely following such a specific musical formula, considering that Talbot’s disparaging lyricism and sneering delivery are arguably the central focus of this record, plus the band establish a sound that may not be a complete breath of fresh air for a post-punk group, but is most definitely instantly recognisable as their own. Moreover, there are a handful of tracks that stand out as examples of IDLES attempting to switch things up a bit, keeping Brutalism from feeling like a one-trick pony. The bright but crunchy guitars on 1049 Gotho, for instance, are more reminiscent of some American punk bands than the English influences that permeate most of this record, with the guitar work of Dead Kennedys’ East Bay Ray coming to mind for me personally. What’s more, the echoey and oddly cheery lead guitar that pops up in between Talbot’s ramblings on this cut is strangely evocative of pop rock, and even the straightforward chord progression over the chorus, paired with a surprisingly melodious vocal performance from the band’s singer, makes this track stand out as being far more accessible than the harsh cuts on the majority of the record. Furthermore, a significant portion of the material on Brutalism exhibits a definite influence from noise rock, with the blistering speed and discordant guitars of Stendhal Syndrome being a prime example. I should also at least briefly mention the lyrics to this song, which are particularly memorable courtesy of the fact that, despite being as snide and censorious as Talbot’s other lyrics on the record, they focus on an issue pertaining to art rather than politics or society. Despite the fact that the title of the track refers to a psychosomatic disorder wherein an individual will exhibit extreme, ecstatic reactions when exposed to artwork, the narrator assumes the exact opposite role, simply disregarding any art that they personally do not see merit in as meaningless, with witty lines like, “Did you see that painting what Rothko did? / Looks like it was painted by a two-year-old kid”. In this sense, although Brutalism is a record that largely references many of the same musical ideas throughout its duration, IDLES display an effort to mix things up every now and then, both musically and lyrically, and this is certainly successful in keeping this album’s unrelenting ferocity from getting boring.
Ultimately, as far as debut albums go, Brutalism surely fulfils its salient purposes. On this record, IDLES seem to have their sound fully-formed and the time they have spent playing together and honing their approach to post-punk music really shows. However, that’s not to say the band don’t show any room for improvement, as some of these songs could benefit from some more diverse ideas being introduced, but even still, IDLES are highly successful in pulling the listener in with their industrial grooves and impassioned performances. What’s more, seeing as Talbot is often at the centre of attention, his ability to bear this burden is incredibly impressive and experienced, with there being few moments on this album wherein he isn’t coming through with some mordant, brutally honest lyrics or ruthless and sneering deliveries. Overall, therefore, Brutalism is one of the best debuts I have heard from a punk band in a long time and, whilst there is most definitely room for improvement, I can only be excited at the thought of where IDLES will take their stylings on future material.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10