Idles review – like being hit and hugged at the same time | Slow motion

Jtowards the end of Colossus, the towering opening number from Idles, frontman Joe Talbot orchestrates a moshpit, ordering the crowd to carve out a no man’s land in the middle of the room. “Are you ready to collide?” he roars. Then, more vehemently: “Are you ready to take care of each other?” This combination of violence and compassion is Idles in a nutshell: go wild, be nice. Their shows feel like being hit and hugged at the same time.

Successful paradoxes always intrigue. The Bristol-born band have the strength and fear of post-punk heavyweights like Big Black or the early Bad Seeds, but none of their seething viciousness. Instead, and despite their musical differences, they recall the raucous idealism of the Clash or U2 of the 1980s: a life-and-death desperation to communicate and commune. It’s why they can fill Brixton Academy four nights in a row, and why so many fans have pledged to put the band’s name in their shoes. Like no other British rock band of their generation, Idles offer a resilient sense of place, making pain fertile and ugliness majestic.

They never sounded better. Talbot’s pressing sincerity, hitting every syllable as if hitting a nail, is better suited to autobiography than explicit protest. After the humanitarian politics of their first two records, the brute force slogans of the 2020s Ultramono landed awkwardly, he admitted, as it was designed for live performances just before the pandemic made gigs impossible. While unity is strength, rallying cries such as War and Lands certainly take off (“two fucking years we’ve been waiting for this”, says Talbot with unbridled glee), the latest album from Idles, Crawler, digs more fruitfully into personal struggles, particularly the singer’s 18 years of on-and-off addiction to alcohol and drugs. “This song, and most of our songs, is about drug addiction,” he jokes as an introduction to Medications, one of many numbers raised by Colin Webster’s saxophone agonies.

Now lean and sober, Talbot has the energy of a preacher who teaches young delinquents kickboxing. When he’s not walking over a monitor, leaning as far as gravity will allow, he prowls the stage in front of a barricade of amps or jogs in place. When he shouts, “Can I have a hallelujah?” in Wheel, a heavy song about hereditary alcoholism, He Could Be in the Pulpit; for Mr Motivator (“You Can Do It/Yes You Can!”) is Henry Rollins reborn as a personal trainer.

‘A fearsome machine’: idles at the O2 Brixton Academy. Photography: Andy Hall/The Observer

The sharper edge of the leader translates to the whole group. Once known for crowdsurfing, semi-nudity, tears, and impending mayhem, Idles has solidified into a formidable machine. They can perform ramalama hymns such as Danny Nedelko as well as anyone, but Crawler broadened their horizons, from bug-eyed silliness to 30 seconds of Wiz, his lyrics pasted from text messages from Talbot’s former drug dealer, with the nauseating and waltzing soul of The Beachland Ballroom, and the adjacent hip-hop stomp of Car accident. Guitarists Lee Kiernan and Mark Bowen are as much into noise as they are into riffs, and the best tracks reach an immense industrial clamor: Bowen’s powerful guitar sound paired with drummer Jon Beavis’ crackling suspense on Colossus, or the heyday of Never fight a man with a perm, which approximates the sound of a helicopter taking off from the roof of a collapsing building. Add a bank of machine gun strobes and the impact is physically overwhelming.

Idles’ particular brand of solidarity building requires haters, so there’s indignant bashing of conservatives (“there’s no point in booing because none of them are here”) and a dig slightly jarring (but then I would say) against “pseudo-intellectuals posing as journalists”. Perhaps the rather tedious allegations of class policing inauthenticity that came down to them a few years ago still stand, but it’s hard to hear Talbot’s harrowing tales of addiction and grief and to question his good faith. And then, he would not be the first musician to draw his strength from the feeling of being disdained and misunderstood. A group like Idles needs spades to kick against.

A case in point is I’m foam, which turns derision into defiance. Talbot orders everyone in the room, the group included, to “get down” before surging in unison for the finale. It’s an exciting and hilarious moment that sums up Idles’ inspiring appeal to their tribe: you get knocked down, you get back up. “Don’t be nice,” says Talbot, quoting Dylan Thomas before the last song, as if there was ever any danger.

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