Triumphant: Idles at the O2 Brixton Academy reviewed

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

Idles; Wet Leg

O2 Academy Brixton

The single thing you don’t want when you are beginning a run of four shows in a prestige venue, with reviewers out in force, is for it all to go tits up at the start. Which is precisely what happened to Idles as they opened their Brixton run. On came the band, up started the throb of the opening song, ‘MTT 420 RR’, and off stalked singer Joe Talbot. Back he came. Off he went. Back he came. Off he went, clearly dealing with some technical issue. The rest of the band carried on, but given that until Talbot starts singing, ‘MTT 420 RR’ is nothing but a monotone drone, this was not the dramatic start one might have hoped for. Next to me, Idles’ booking agent started laughing, a little despairingly.

And that was it for despair, for once Talbot’s troubles were cured — a faulty in-ear monitor, apparently — Idles were a shock of energy and power. The first time I saw them they were grateful to be playing to a few hundred people in London; four years on, they’re selling 20,000 tickets at Brixton. The Academy is a cavernous space that can make bands sound as though they are trying to fight their way out of quicksand. It quickly exposes which of them are not yet ready for big stages. I wouldn’t say Idles made it feel like a club — they didn’t — but they seemed entirely at home.

Idles’ growth over the past few years has been driven by one thing: a rage leavened with a certain astonishment at the ridiculousness of the world. One would not have called them the most nuanced of groups: their default setting was a barbaric yawp, musically, lyrically and vocally. But it was a barbaric yawp to which people responded: at the festivals I go to Idles are the single most popular T-shirt, whether or not they are playing. But no matter how exciting they could be, there was always the sense that they needed to be more than the blunt instrument they were. There was not, it had to be said, a lot of subtlety in Talbot bellowing out ‘The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich’ while the rest of the band pummelled you about the head with their instruments.

That all changed with last year’s album Crawler, the kind of leap one always longs for bands to make but which so few manage. Talbot sang, for the first time, and his lyrics had new depth. ‘MTT 420 RR’ hangs around the repeated phrase ‘It was February/ I was cold and I was high’, which becomes chilling when you work out that he’s singing about a road accident, and the song is really about his own addictions and the danger in which they placed him and others.

The band still pummel, but the greater variety in the new songs means the show is no longer like putting your head underneath a pneumatic drill for 90 minutes. Only 45 of the 90 are now like that. Which seems a lot, if you don’t like horrible noise, but means the show now balances breathless excitement with the chance to breathe, and the subtler songs — such as the unlikely deep soul waltz ‘The Beachland Ballroom’ — gain tension from being played by a band so palpably on the edge of exploding.

Across the four nights, Idles had picked eight different support bands — an act of generosity big bands rarely bother with —and for the opening show Wet Leg were one of the two. If you have listened to BBC 6 Music at all over the past year, you know Wet Leg. Their debut single ‘Chaise Longue’ — ‘Is your muffin buttered? Would you like us to assign someone to butter your muffin?’ — was one of the runaway sensations of 2021, a song so irresistibly silly, arch and sexy that it was impossible to listen to just once.

There have been two more singles since, and an album is due in the spring, but ‘Chaise Longue’ already overshadows them, which might be why Rhian Teasdale delivered it in such an odd manner. It’s all very well having one incredible song, but what about the rest? On the strength of this set, it’s a hung jury. That’s no fault of Wet Leg: a support slot in a venue like this — even with a crowd pumped up enough to be moshing rather than chatting — can be thankless. The sound boomed and echoed, the guitars were all but inaudible, and it was really only the crowd’s excitement that kept things buoyant. It’s not their fault, I stress. Wet Leg are still, at this point, a band that needs to be seen in a small room.

But Idles? They might not want to play bigger spaces, but they are one more good album away from filling arenas and headlining festivals. They are, right now, triumphant.

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