IDLES' Crawler finds beauty and joy amid the wreckage of the past

IDLES - Crawler
(Image credit: Partisan Records)

‘Rock is dead’ discourse never factored for IDLES. The Bristolians’ ascent from relative obscurity to international acclaim – including making a dent in the elusive US market – has been meteoric, exploding into the public consciousness in a way that we had been reliably assured would never happen again. A groundswell of support saw sold-out bars, pubs and, on occasion, libraries quickly switched out with sold-out clubs, academies and overseas shows.

That the band have existed in some form or another since 2009 is largely irrelevant. Their 2017 debut Brutalism represented the point where IDLES truly came into being, its mixture of aggro elements drawing comparisons with sources as diverse as Mclusky, The Streets and Sleaford Mods while carving out their own idiosyncratic niche in British alternative music.

Even then, the band knew what they wanted to say. A chat with Metal Hammer that year discussed many of the topics that would later prove key lyrical narratives in 2018’s Joy As An Act Of Resistance. While IDLES had never obscured their lyrical and political inclinations (the Mother lyric  ‘the only way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich’ certainly wasn’t fence-sitting), Joy…’s tackling of ‘hot-button’ topics like immigration and toxic masculinity perfectly aligned the band with the rise (and sudden crash) of the Labour Momentum movement, a canny soundtrack for the consuming hunger for change so desperately needed after a decade of austerity.

By the time IDLES got round to Ultra Mono, they were riding high on a wave of unmitigated successes, ending 2019 by playing to 10,000 fans at Alexandra Palace. But what comes up, must go down. IDLES didn't exactly suffer any major defeats with Ultra Mono (the album gave the band their first No. 1 after all), excitement was more muted than it had been. After all, where the band had once been entirely unique, shiny and new, they had since paved the way for a legion of similarly aggro bass-heavy groups to rise in their wake, begging the question – where could they go next?

The answer, as told by CRAWLER, is to set out for new realms entirely. If the biggest criticism of Ultra Mono was that IDLES were effectively just rearranging the palette of elements, tones and inspirations that had made them so vital in the first place, CRAWLER feels like a conscious effort to evolve and grow in the same way they have as individuals. Key to it all are vocalist Joe Talbot’s lyrics, songs like Car Crash dealing directly with his past substance abuse as he reckons with the spectre of the man that was and the person he rebuilt himself as.

The near-hardcore physicality of IDLES’ first three records is still present, but CRAWLER branches out to include more of the post-punk that crept into Ultra Mono in the sublime A Hymn. Producer Kenny Beats has helped IDLES introduce more electronica into their sound like the proverbial Frankenstein, thrumming away in a way that brings their sound back to life and thrills without changing the basic structure of their music.

Compare MTT 420 RR to previous album openers and it isn’t nearly so abrasive nor frenetic, its closest comparison being with Joy…’s Colossus, albeit with no punkish breakout to alleviate the tension. Where IDLES once went hell for leather, now they hold the line, looking on with a sense of critical analysis that reflects the journey they have been on. Talbot sounds almost mournful, echoes of Nick Cave creeping into his voice; the swelling bass notes echo thunder perfectly as Talbot asks, ‘are you ready for the storm?’

No longer flinging themselves with reckless abandon into a maelstrom of punk-tinged distortion, there is a sense of maturity to CRAWLER that deftly shows IDLES are committed to evolving as a band. They haven’t done away with the faster, heavier offerings – The Wheel, The New Sensation and The End are all certain to get crowds moving – but more mid-paced reflective tracks throw more shades of Joy Division and The Stranglers (as heard on their most recent album, at least) into the mix.

By extension, CRAWLER is an honest introspective journey with no wart and imperfection left unaddressed, whilst still offering peaks, valleys and musical landmarks aplenty to soak up. IDLES' departures from the usual rock and alternative wheelhouse have generally resulted in some of their best songs – they once described Well Done as ‘[our] attempt at writing a grime song’ and Ultra Mono made great use of tones more associated with modern hip-hop and R&B – and Car Crash is no exception. Obvious comparisons to Death Grips can be scratched away to find underlying Moor Mother or Dalek uses of percussion and tone. Elsewhere the melodic section that comes in towards the end of the track feels like something you might hear on a Nirvana record, or more aptly on the noise rock applications of melody that inspired Nirvana in the first place – Scratch Acid, Butthole Surfers, Cows.

When IDLES said lead single The Beachland Ballroom was a soul song, they weren’t entirely wrong. The clanging keys and organs do feel like something you might hear in an Amy Winehouse record, a vulnerability showing in the music that can only come from baring your deepest insecurities. Elsewhere, the frantic 30-second burst of Wizz is grindcore meets UK-82 at its finest, pure aggression in a package that would do Discharge and their dis-core disciples proud. 

Even with a more sombre tone to the overall record, CRAWLER still sees IDLES doing what they do best – finding joy and beauty even amidst a personal hell, exemplified in the line ‘in spite of it all, life is beautiful’. Though the album at times sounds like IDLES sifting through the ashes of a wreckage, they don't allow themselves to drown in past regret, instead building on those foundations to ever achieve greater heights – the heavens beckon, after all. 

CRAWLER is out November 12 via Partisan Records

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.