Raw, Defiant and Angry: Idles and the music of Brutalism

Thomas Gane discusses one of the most vital bands in the UK

Raw, Defiant and Angry: Idles and the music of Brutalism

By Thomas Gane

Apr 5, 2017 8:40

Idles was a band known for visceral live shows. Shows characterised by spontaneity, furious passion and inter-band antagonism that occasionally bordered on violence. There is far more to Idles than this "pantomime of twat” however. Through a punishing practice regime the Bristol post-punks have continuously sharpened their talents and added a supreme tightness and overwhelming power to their performance. Few can live with Idles in full flow, with the band relishing challenging both themselves and the audience.

This glorious cacophony wasn’t captured by the band’s early recordings (thus the ‘was’ in the first sentence). It took more than five years of practice, toil and life for the band to translate their live sound to wax, but with the March release of their debut album ‘Brutalism’ Idles succeeded. It is an abrasive, shocking and brilliant record. One that shows a band who appear destructive have always been building.

‘Brutalism’ is well-named, with Idles corresponding sonically to the aesthetics of Brutalist architecture. They build up from rock hard foundations, a relentless rhythm section composed of twin concrete pillars. The thundering, imposing bass and a drummer who, in true Brutalist fashion, is in all likelihood a machine in a man’s body. They’re raw and sharp, with the guitars creating jagged soundscapes that cut through the air like the most striking of Brutalist structures. The lyrics are written and delivered with an unwavering focus. Idles’ lead singer Joe Talbot has a gift at condensing a lyric or sentiment, capturing the essence of the issue and furiously releasing it in a succinct, biting way.

This superficial examination is in itself interesting. The exploration of a visual architectural style through sound is more effort than many lauded albums give and Idles are successful in it. The sonic architecture of ‘Brutalism’ is undoubtedly similar to the aesthetic of the Hayward Gallery, SESC Pompéia or The Barbican. However this interpretation scratches the surface of ‘Brutalism’. This is an album not only inspired by the buildings, but crucially by the people who lived inside them.

Raw, Defiant and Angry: Idles and the music of Brutalism

Brutalist architecture was born from the post-war period and the need to rebuild countries ravaged by violence and the deepest evils human minds could conceive. With left-wing governments in power, epitomised by the greatest politicians this country has known, Attlee and Bevan, there was an optimism about the future. A belief that technological advancement and an acceptance of socialist values would lead to progress.

This idea manifested itself in the physical form of massive buildings formed with raw concrete. This style of architecture came to be known as Brutalist – from the French béton brut (raw concrete) rather than the adjective – and Brutalist buildings soon dominated the cities that were destroyed during the war. They became homes for the working class communities that fuelled the fight against fascism with blood, sweat and bodies. They provided schools, hospitals, places of work and places of leisure. The post-war Labour government built these Brutalist buildings when they built the modern welfare state. The modern NHS. The modern education system. All were born from grey, concrete buildings.

In this way Brutalism built this country. In this way the people of Newport built this country. The people of Bristol, Liverpool, Hull, Manchester, Glasgow and Newcastle built this country. They were born in grey concrete buildings, educated in them, worked in them, and many died in them too. The importance of these people is proven by the mere existence of Brutalism and particularly where it exists. Was Oxford bombed? Cambridge? Bath? Windsor? The country can run without it’s stately manors. Indeed, it probably would have run better without them. The country can’t run without the working people who sacrificed then and continue to sacrifice now.

Idles’ ‘Brutalism’ is for them. The people who fought for those buildings and what they represented. The men who poured the concrete. The women who worked inside them for ten hours; then went home and worked another seven, unpaid and largely unrecognised, so their children could study art, politics and philosophy in grey concrete buildings hundreds of miles from home. ‘Brutalism’ is for everyone who understood what went on inside was far more important than what they looked like. ‘Brutalism’ is for the communities of these people that were forgotten and disregarded. Who who were lied to by the city, the church and the media. Generations of people whose potential was stolen by those who saw them as a quick buck. An almost perfect visual representation of this is Rupert Murdoch residing at the top of a Lasdun-designed brutalist apartment block overlooking Green Park in London.

‘Brutalism’ discusses the way these communities were looked down on by the higher classes who believed a few schools and hospitals would be enough to fix centuries of oppression and inequality (“why don’t you win a medal, even Tarquin wins a medal” – ‘Well Done’). It describes how they were under-invested in and left to fend for themselves by successive governments. How without proper care these imposing buildings and resilient communities started to decay (“Over and over and over and over again, nothing ever happens” – ‘Exeter’), with particularly violent results for the male ego (“Steven’s in the bar for a bar fight, Nick’s in the bar for a bar fight” – ibid). It laments how economics came to dominate over politics and that this faith in the city became toxic, with these communities not seeing the wealth that existed in as good as fictional places (“there’s no god in the city” / “praise the lord” – ‘Faith In The City’). It explores the continually overlooked personal political issues that ravage these communities and the country at large; sexism (“Sexual violence doesn’t start and end with rape, It starts in our books and behind our school gates” – ‘Mother’), race, privilege and the comparative lack of consequences (“The S.L.C. want Timmy’s student loan back, He’d happily oblige but he’s used it all on gack” – ‘White Privilege’), and alcoholism, addiction and mental health (“Help me, Help me, Won’t someone set me free? There’s no right side of the bed, With a body like mine and a mind like mine” – ‘1049 Gotho’). It rails against the destruction of the NHS and Welfare State, made possible by Brutalist buildings, due to Tory greed and contempt (“a loved one buried at the hands of the barren-hearted right” – ‘Divide & Conquer’).

Raw, Defiant and Angry: Idles and the music of Brutalism

‘Brutalism’ is a poignant reminder of how art, culture, architecture, politics are linked. Consider the artists that define current chart music and how they correspond to today’s architecture and design. In a world where everything must be slim, shiny and look good with an Instagram filter, we have Ed Sheeran, The Chainsmokers and Clean Bandit. Music that’s flashy and colourful, sickly and overwhelming with the sheer weight of nothing. Lyrics carefully constructed in 140 characters, perfect for a Tinder bio or ankle tattoo, with sentiment so thin it might as well be transparent. Ed Sheeran writing, “I’m just a boy with a one-man show, No university, no degree, but lord knows, Everybody’s talking ’bout exponential growth, And the stock market crashing in their portfolios,” as if he’s not got more money than any human with the slightest concept of reality could look at without feeling sick.

In comparison to this algorithm driven, weathercock writing, ‘Brutalism is an album that was born out of time, blood and concrete. Despite the anger and darkness, at it’s heart it is hopeful. The image of massive, decaying structures may be depressing to some, both visually and metaphorically, but despite the decay the buildings still stand. The NHS, schools and universities still stand. They’re being buffeted by rain, wind and snow, by hatred, ignorance and greed, but they remain, raw, defiant and angry.

Furthermore, despite Thatcher, Blair, Cameron, May, Trump, Farage and Sheeran, the ideas and beliefs that put those buildings there remain in the people. The flawed, angry and broken people born in grey concrete buildings. The beautiful people who worked, drank, fought and lived. The belief in and love for these people is the core of Idles and ‘Brutalism’. To truly understand it you need to see them live. To experience the joyous anger and sense of community. It’s furious, visceral and violent, but even more so it’s optimistic, cathartic and beautiful, and Idles couldn’t put on a show like that if they didn’t believe in every person in the room. You leave feeling physically spent but spiritually and emotionally rejuvenated. You want to put your arms around mates, punch them in the stomach, kiss them on the mouth and tell them you love them.

The inside cover of ‘Brutalism contains a handwritten note from Joe Talbot to his mother. ‘Brutalism’ was influenced by and written in the time preceding, when Joe was caring for her in Newport, and following her death. In writing the album Idles chose to accept anger and embrace catharsis and this was fundamental to the sharpening and rawness of their sound. The letter is gentle, loving and unflinching. From darkness it draws out beauty. As is Joe’s gift, it contains a succinct summation of the hope and love of Idles and ‘Brutalism’, capturing in 23 words what this essay has danced around for hundreds. “There’s a million of you knocking about in the world and I see you often dancing in the flames which is fucking magic.”

All is love. Don’t go gentle.

Idles are Joe Talbot, Mark Bowen, Lee Kiernan, Adam Devonshire and Jon Beavis.