Live Review: IDLES @ O2 Academy, Liverpool 30/3/17

IDLES’ debut album Brutalism is out now via Balley Records.

It’s been a while since a debut album got me as excited about a band as IDLES’ Brutalism has. At a time when the country appears to be getting the stuffing pulled out of it, March saw several albums from British bands who seem to want to kick it back in with some force. Sleaford Mods are angrier than ever on English Tapas, and even veterans Depeche Mode seem more than a bit naffed off on new album Spirit, but Brutalism really feels like the combination of wit, fury and all-round musicianship the UK is crying out for.

A timely opportunity for Liverpool to see what all the fuss is all about has come round at the O2 Arena. Like with most venues that have the name of a beer or telecommunication company in their name, it’s not my favourite place in the city to see bands, but the bottom floor is not bad at all. It’s got a ‘pubby’ vibe with its fruit machines and good-sized bar (albeit serving stupidly priced drinks), and with it quickly becoming apparent that we’re going to get a good couple of hundred through the doors tonight, there’s no reason not to get giddy off a couple of £5.40 plastic pints of San Miguel.

Two solid local support bands get us started, with Shy Billy and Generation both giving wholehearted displays. The former reminded me of a funkier Royal Blood, while the latter really put their guts into their energetic punky set. Neither were perhaps what I would go out of my way to listen to, but I was impressed with the musical talents and vigour of both.

IDLES enter the stage with frontman Joe Talbot being embraced by lead guitarist Mark Bowen, and it’s a fitting start to a cosy yet edgy set that begins with album opener ‘Heel’, followed by the snarling ‘Faith in the City’. It seems to take Talbot a few songs before his voice really cultivates that caustic rasp that enhances the album, with ‘Mother’ perhaps being the point at which things really get going.

“This song’s about depression,” announces Talbot next, which oddly gets a cheer from the crowd, but that might be because they’ve worked out it’s the visceral ‘1049 Gotho’. ‘Divide and Conquer’, despite being largely instrumental, is one of the most hardest-hitting tracks on the album, and Talbot grunts ‘Fuck Jeremy Hunt in the eye with a knife!” to herald its arrival. It’s a vicious and grotesque verbal attack but one it’s hard to disagree with. Merseyside is an entirely Tory-free county these days, and even the most malicious attacks on the ‘barren-hearted right’ are unlikely to upset anyone here tonight. This one really has everyone bouncing.

‘Exeter’ is another highlight, about “growing up in a shithole, which you lot wouldn’t know about” according to Talbot, whose trip to Liverpool has obviously not taken him as far afield as Huyton or Birkenhead. The song has elements of a boozy football chant, and the growing urgency as we hear of Nick, Lily, Shiteyes and half the population of Exeter ‘in the bar for a bar fight’ gets everyone well hooked in. Perhaps being from the Wirral, I can relate more to small town boredom than those on the other side of the Mersey.

‘Well Done’ is a song I think I only first heard about three months ago, but I can’t imagine not having heard it. It’s so direct and probing. Talbot is pointing at individual people as he sarcastically quizzes them on why they don’t get jobs, win medals, like reggae and so on and so forth. He curries further favour with the locals by blasting The Sun and other hate-spreading media in introducing set-closer and new track ‘Rottweiler’, which is the biggest all-out blast of noise heard all night.

IDLES are hugely entertaining and thought-provoking. There are so many lines that are repeated and brutalised (excuse the pun), giving us plenty of opportunity to shout back lines like ‘the best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich’, ‘always poor, never bored’, ‘hot air’ and of course ‘well done!’, but there are also lines that can easily be misunderstood and open to debate. What are we to make of Talbot’s citing of ‘one miscarriage, two abortions’ in ‘White Privilege’, his ‘sexual violence doesn’t start and end with rape’ assertion in ‘Mother’, his apparent critique of religion ousting reason in ‘Faith in the City’? Yes, some lyrics are spat at you with venom, but others are just tossed out there like lumps of plasticine, as if to say ‘make of that what you want’.

Amiable, yet unsettling and volatile, Talbot is an engaging frontman too. You never quite know when he’s going to let out an abrasive growl, or bellow some obscenity. He’s like that mate who is generally affable enough, but if something riles him the night could end with you all in the back of a police van. In the crowd, you feel like you’re just about on his ‘right side’, but there’s enough doubt there to make his presence all the more compelling.

With the deserved acclaim Brutalism is receiving from critics, IDLES are suddenly finding themselves in front of crowds of a couple of hundred, but they’re coping with it well and you feel that they will get better with more confidence. Talbot at one point says “I’m not good at talking so let’s play some more songs.” He’s wrong – he’s witty, quirky and imposing, and his banter was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the show. The more people see them, the more he’ll realise that, and the more IDLES will be able to combine their energy, intelligence and undeniable talent to leave people wondering what the hell just hit them.

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