The end of 2004 and the start of 2005 saw the release of two debut albums that sit pretty close to my heart; The Futureheads self titled and Silent Alarm by Bloc Party. I was beginning to emerge from the cold of a post-rock / post-folk hangover and these bands and records reinvigorated my love all things energetic, twisted and indie.
It’d be fair to say both bands have never since reached those heights. The Futureheads lost it first but have come out of the experience more determined to follow their own path than ever (have you heard their recent acapella album?). Bloc Party instead tried to valiantly follow a more interesting path, which at the time, I applauded. Their sound became increasingly dependent on electronics and, seemingly, the will of singer Kele Okereke. It was only after recently listening back to that first album that I realised how far they had travelled and how disappointing the final destination had been.
After a short hiatus, they are back with a fourth album that, in short, sees them go back to basics. One of the oddest things about their evolution was how sidelined the drums and guitar were, when Bloc Party were blessed with probably the best guitarist / drummer combo in Indie. And it’s a pleasure to hear them back to work, finally.
The record is keen to remind you they are a band again, perhaps overly so. The record opens with studio chatter and tape hiss before launching into So He Begins To Lie. The effect is slightly off putting and takes a while to settle in, purely because the record sounds so live, and then so alive. Second track 3x3 is unlike anything they have committed to tape before; a tight and claustrophobic song desperately seeking for air and a massive production budget, yet certainly better without it. The angular and transcendental sounds of the mid Noughties are back, battered and bruised.
Underwhelming first single Octopus makes more sense within the context of the whole album and warms up to be a catchy, albeit quite hookless and uneuphoric addition to the first half of the record. Kettling is the first indication of an actual different style in its pure, unapologetic heaviness. This kind of riffing is rare in their back catalogue, a comparison perhaps being Song For Clay from A Weekend In The City, but far less polished and produced here, which is a huge benefit.
The second half of the record opens with a one-two Philip K Dick tribute. Okereke has never been subtle or graceful with his nod to his heroes (see the literal steal from Richey Edwards in Where Is Home?) and this trend continues with Coliseum’s acceptable “The empire never ended” homage but titling a song V.A.L.I.S. is just too one note (and stupid) to be let to pass. Still, the lyrically threads of not recognising the person he is, was, or is becoming, set up some connections to a general feeling of coming to terms with who you are; you might not be perfect, or even a good person but you ARE. It at times feels like a justification for their past musical journey, but could just as well be an apology for it.
Tellingly, unlike any previous Bloc Party album, it ends on a defiant and aggressive note instead of sigh. We Are Not Good People is the heaviest, nosiest thing they have released – almost unrecognisable in its opening - and despite the suspicion of shock tactic riffing supplanting thought out songwriting, is a great way to end a mixed album.
In a way Bloc Party have achieved something quite exceptional; this sounds like a debut record. To capture that passion and intensity some thirteen years after forming is something quite unheard of, and the heart of this record is large and true. The flipside is that the songs don’t quite match up to the highs of their other records. True, they don’t sink to the occasional lows of albums two and three either but it does lack some killer tunes to drag it up. As it stands, it actually feels like a rough around the edges predecessor to the still not bettered Silent Alarm.
But we do have a consistent, interesting, ideas-full record. It even has jokes between the songs for goodness sake. So despite being far from a classic, seeing and hearing the band in such high spirits and channelling their supreme talent into a working album is good enough, at least for now.