From the U.K. With Love

My most memorable experience during my semester abroad in London was undoubtedly attending the surprise album release party of Crawler put on by the band IDLES. After by chance discovering the Instagram post announcing the concert and managing to grab a ticket in the ten minutes before they sold out, I walked to the rather small 1,200-capacity music hall in the Hackney neighborhood. I would have missed the venue, which was off on a narrow side street, if not for several people standing in front of the nondescript building well before doors were set to open. After waiting nearly an hour, and getting the usual odd look from security trying to find the date of birth on my U.S. license, I claimed my spot at the front stage barricades and conversed with other IDLES fans. This included topics like Brexit, Boris Johnson, and all the other things that come up as an American in a crowd of politically minded young British people. 

Social issues are an excellent place to start when discussing the rock band IDLES – but I hesitate to define their sound any further, as they famously dislike the punk-rock label attributed to their music. IDLES formed in 2009, when frontman Joe Talbot and bassist Adam Devonshire met guitarist Mark Bowen while studying in the city of Bristol, England. Fast forward a few years, and the band’s lineup was solidified with the addition of guitarist Lee Kiernan and drummer Jon Beavis. After releasing several singles and EPs in the early 2010s, the band truly broke into the U.K. alternative scene in 2017 with the release of their debut album Brutalism

Immediately, Brutalism’s lyrical intensity separated the album from their earlier releases, with songs like “Mother” and “Exeter” taking on issues of poverty, sexual assault, and fragile masculinity. Their sophomore album Joe as an Act of Resistance followed a similar sonic tone as their debut, complete with even more poignant social themes, but also produced massive commercial hits such as “Danny Nedelko” and “Never Fight a Man with a Perm.” After a brief COVID hiatus, the band returned with albums Ultra Mono and Crawler in 2020 and 2021 respectively. These additions to IDLES’s catalog saw their sound evolve to include synth- and string-driven melodies, particularly on tracks “Progress” and “A Hymn,” while providing familiar high-energy hits like “Mr. Motivator” and “Car Crash.”

The band, and specifically Joe Talbot, hold nothing back when expressing their opinions on topics that other rock acts might all together avoid. Talbot often praises the National Health Service, which provided him and his family care he couldn’t otherwise afford, and calls out attempts by conservative politicians to privatize the healthcare sector. Lee Kiernan frequently speaks on his personal struggles with alcoholism, and how joining the band aided his journey to sobriety. The band’s lyrics reflect their openness to discussing these difficult topics, such as the single “Mercedes Marxist” that reflects on drinking culture, proclaiming “Suicide’s for cowards he said / While sat drinking himself to death.”

The effect that IDLES, and particularly the release of Joy as an Act of Resistance in 2018, has had on the U.K. musical landscape is quite monumental. By reaching U.S. audiences, which were starved of politically driven music with a hard edge at a time of great social turmoil, the U.K. rock and alt scene entered a new Golden Age. New acts seemingly came out of nowhere on a daily basis, from the poetically-inclined Yard Act, to the rhythmically driven Irish band Fontaines D.C., to even the pop-rock and melodically driven band Wet Leg.

After returning home to Boston to start my first semester on the school’s main campus, I was well aware of the band Wet Leg. Their catchy bass lines and witty lyrics seared themselves into mind after seeing them open up for the band Sports Team while still in London. When I was able to attend their first headlining tour at the Paradise Rock Club in spring, my admiration for their music only grew. Unlike Talbot, who gladly screams “Don’t watch Fox News it’ll give you cancer” into the mic on a nightly basis, Hester Chambers and Rhian Teasdale, who front Wet Leg, are only able to muster up a gentle “Thank you” in between songs before giggling and moving along. Both Chamber and Teasdale wear their shyness on their sleeves, and admit they wrote the songs from their self-titled debut Wet Leg expecting no one to listen to them. But all it took was one smash hit single titled “Chaise Longue,” which charted in the UK and received significant airplay in the U.S., to throw the duo into stardom.

Unlike IDLES, who berates the audience with a massive wall of sound, Wet Leg take a more subdued approach, with relaxed hooks and clean vocals. But behind their unassuming melodies are rather direct lyrics, such as describing love in the title track “Being in Love” as “the world is caving in” and a “fucked up trip.” This continues on the aptly-titled track “Piece of Shit,” where Rhian sings (presumably about an ex) “You’re like a piece of shit, you either sink or float / So you take her for a ride on your daddy’s boat.” The pure absurdity of the lyrics on songs like “Oh No” and “Wet Dream” act in perfect contradiction to the clean-cut demeanor the band outwardly presents. But the closing track “Too Late Low” acts as a rather blunt sonic climax for the LP, with a faster tempo, hard hitting bass drum, multiple layers of guitar tracks, and the occasional “Oh my God” scream in the chorus to top it off. So despite Wet Leg’s initial appearance as the polar opposite of a band like IDLES, dissecting their music reveals they share a similar taste for ironic lyrics, and at the end of the day, both write music that’s meant to be fun for the masses.My friends, the future of music is very bright. Just the other day, I saw the U.K. based artist Wunderhorse open up for Fontaines D.C. at the House of Blues. His fiery single “Leader of the Pack” has all the potential to transform the singer/guitarist into the next indie rock ‘it kid,’ much like “Chaise Longue” did for Wet Leg. But if the multitude of British indie bands headlining coast-to-coast U.S. and European tours are any indication, we are just at the beginning of a (4th?) British rock renaissance.

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