IDLES: the Most Vital Band on Planet Earth

“We’re like… heavy post-punk, like every other fucking band in the world right now.” Those are the words Idles frontman Joe Talbot uses to describe the band in a ten-minute miniature documentary that follows the band around Austin, TX during 2018’s South By Southwest Music Festival. But while post-punk is having a mighty resurgence at the moment on both sides of the Atlantic, one show is enough to prove to anyone that the Idles are unlike any other band in the world right now.

The “AF Gang”

The five-piece from Bristol, England have a personality all their own, transforming any room into a pulpit for their fiery anthems; even if that room happens to be a music hall nestled in the side of a bowling alley within a largely-windowless, labyrinthine mall in Albany, NY.

Following a blistering set by their neighbors to the west, Dublin’s Fontaines D.C., Idles take the stage to a packed room full of a diverse, all-ages crowd of young college kids, older punks, and a few groups of UK folks who made the flight to follow the band on tour. They’ve inspired a fiercely loyal following, centered around their “AF Gang” Facebook group, where thousands of the Idles faithful gather to share their love of the band, other music, and give support in trying times.

It’s not uncommon to see people reaching out to those going through rough patches, or for vinyl collectors to give away the digital download codes often included with their albums to share in amazing music. They’ve even got their own lingo, and it’s not uncommon to see the posts end in “AIL” or “DGG”, abbreviations of common Talbot-isms “all is love” and “don’t go gentle”. The latter is cribbed from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and, taken together, they form a mantric duality that perfectly encapsulates Idles’ ethos of compassionate but robust resistance.

Idles and the Music

Though their initial offerings flirted briefly with indie rock, by the time Idles released their debut EP Meat in 2015, Talbot’s voice had already morphed into a snarl, and the band’s sound had shed its pristine origins for jagged edges and noise.

Their first album, Brutalism, bristled with uncut energy, harnessing Talbot’s anger at the role cuts to Britain’s National Health Service played in the death of his mother, and examining other adjacent facets of society including toxic masculinity and classism. Idles have become an essential band of this time not only because of the tumult in their home country, but because these issues are prevalent in so much of the western world. And while Talbot’s music has so often looked grief and repugnance square in the face, they manage to retain a scathing sense of humor throughout, all without sacrificing one iota of honesty.

It’s the genuine nature of Idles’ music that truly separates them from anyone else making music today.

While there are certainly other bands making essential and honest music, no one oozes truth from every pore and in every lyric quite like this band. Lines like “this snowflake is an avalanche”, from ‘I’m Scum’, would be hard to pull off from the lips of any other band, but Talbot and co. deliver it ably, just one of a legion of quotables born out of their latest LP, Joy as an Act of Resistance. 

One of the hallmark characteristics of an Idles gig is that just about everyone knows every word; from front to back of the midsize venue that is Jupiter Hall, everyone is singing along. Most Idles tunes are ripe for this, as even the studio versions capture that live energy, with guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, as well as bassist Adam Devonshire, shouting in call-and-response patterns with Talbot’s lead and helping every chorus swell even more.

“I’m a feminist!” Talbot declares at the start of ‘Mother’, a song that is unique in that it ends with a whole roomful of people singing about – and against – the systems by which sexual violence is normalized in the media from an early age. While on paper that might sound a bit forced, there’s no sense of that in the room, just a mass of people hopping up and down in acknowledgment and defiance of these societal tendencies.

The crowd was treated to an expansive setlist, but the highlight of the night was the first-ever live performance of ‘Mercedes Marxist’, a track born between their two studio albums that had never seen release until one day prior to the Albany show, when it was gifted to the world as a single backed with the fantastically-named ‘I Dream Guillotine’.

Bearing a fuzzy, stalwart baseline from Devonshire that recalls The Fall’s ‘Blindness’, Bowen and Kiernan provide oscillating guitar hooks that keep pace with the buildup of the song before it explodes in typical Idles fashion.

The two guitarists and Talbot move constantly around the stage during the show, with Talbot staring determinedly out into the audience, and the guitar duo lifting their instruments like battle standards, posing them vertically in the air before bringing them slicing downwards again. Bowen’s wearing tights emblazoned with the American flag, and the entire band are wearing soccer jerseys gifted to them, Talbot explains, by their tour photographer.

Talbot has a bit to say about the country whose symbol adorns Bowen’s lower half, as well. “Our country is a nation of immigrants. Your country is a nation of immigrants.” Cheers rise from the crowd as the band begins “Danny Nedelko”, a song praising the virtue of immigration named for the lead singer of contemporaries Heavy Lungs, himself an immigrant to the UK.

Many times throughout the night, Kiernan and Bowen leave the stage and dive into the crowd, disappearing among the sea of faces and often returning sans guitar for a moment as they let the audience strum out dissonant noises while Devonshire and drummer Jon Beavis hold down the fort in the rhythm section.

During the moody midsection of ‘Love Song’ Bowen climbs back onto the stage from a round in the crowd and duets with Talbot on the first verse of Nick Cave’s ‘From Her to Eternity’, an early Bad Seeds staple that feels right at home at an Idles show with its barely-restrained intensity.

As the old adage goes, all good things must come to an end, but not before the band tore down the house with a raucous performance of Joy closer ‘Rottweiler’, which has been ending Idles shows since before the album was even released. Though the body of the song only lasts a couple of minutes, it culminates with a titanic instrumental jam. On the record, Talbot can be heard shouting in the background as the band tears it up, but at the close of the night he cedes the stage to Bowen, who climbs up to Beavis’ drum set, his mic cord wrapped around him, singing a refrain of “Long live the open-minded!”

It’s a fine and fitting note to end on, and the room dissolves into a cloud of sweaty, happy punks, old fans and new converts, most of whom swarm the merch table, eager for one of the band’s absurdist tees, many of which are designed by Talbot himself.

Just before the chorus of ‘Danny Nedelko’, Talbot (and the audience) scream “Unity!” And that, perhaps more than anything else, is the best single word to describe what one feels at an Idles show. Nowhere in the world is there a more beautiful and emotional marriage of intensity and positivity.

Review and photos by Collin Heroux

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