Although they are still the U.K.'s most vital punk band, Idles are on fire, not just in terms of their productivity -- four albums in four years -- or their renewed vigor, but also off the back of their first lukewarm record, Ultra Mono. However, it's terribly on-brand for Idles to not go gentle, and Crawler is nothing if not rage against the dying of the light.
After sensing that their sound was becoming stale, Idles' fourth album sees the band exploring several new avenues at once. The need to evolve is true of any artist, but many don't take the leap for fear of the risks. Crawler, then, defaults to their most daring album to date, as it incorporates elements of electronic music, noise rock, soul, and 2000s indie. It's also their densest record, with generally more obscured themes and more nuance than ever before -- clearly made in response to the broadness of previous material.
Despite some missteps, Ultra Mono only furthered their assent and stature, allowing the band to feel untethered from genre conventions and free to explore. They drive this home immediately, with the opening track "MTT 420 RR" bucking the trend of explosive openers in favor of subtle swirling electronics, which build upon themselves in interesting ways. Of course, they're attempting to straddle both old and new, so it leads into "The Wheel," which is more in line with their explosive reputation, even if the instrumentation is meatier. Yet another side of the album reveals itself in "When the Lights Come On," which features a spectral guitar line reminiscent of Kings of Leon's "Knocked Up." With half their hand on the table they settle into familiar and often uninspiring territory, that is until lead track "Beachland Ballroom." Although not their first foray into soulful territory -- after covering Solomon Burke's "Cry to Me" -- the track is a clear highlight, demonstrating how compatible this approach is; Talbot's personal struggle to keep moving forward makes for a bittersweet listen, deftly proving his melodic range and underlining how good Idles can be when they show relative restraint. The back half of the record is very scattershot, but consistently surprising, featuring an ambient interlude ("Kelechi"), a beautifully ethereal soundscape that erupts into synth and bass stabs ("Progress"), and a burst of hardcore punk ("Wizz"). The anthemic closer "The End" reaffirms that this is still Idles, acting as a not-so-gentle reminder that when the big guns are necessary, they can still raise the roof.
It's great to see so many new ideas from a band who flirted with stagnation, a point only exemplified by the weakest songs being the ones that stick closest to their old formula. It makes Crawler more than just a course correction; it has the potential to open the door to the Idles multiverse, where multiple versions of the band co-exist. Whilst it doesn't always stick the landing, the new spaces it does explore are well worth the journey.