Of the new millennium’s crop of danceable punk solutions — Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, the Killers et al. — London’s Bloc Party has the most creative potential. Compared to past tourmates Franz Ferdinand, with whom the band shares Gang of Four’s jagged guitar/dance beat template, Bloc Party seethes with a righteous passion and seriousness that stands apart from their Scottish counterpart’s coy cleverness. This multi-cultural quartet does punk with dance undertones, not the other way ’round. Kele Okereke’s rantings come closer to Gang of Four’s socialist dissent than any popular act today; more important is Bloc Party’s versatile rhythm section (bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong). This is one band whose musical fury matches its convictions.
The band’s fiery anger roars infectiously out of the gate on the self-titled EP. Bloc Party’s centerpiece, the terrific single “Banquet,” skewers America’s contradictory fast food culture, which sells Big Macs to consumers and then despises the resulting obesity (“If you feel / A little left behind / Then we will weigh you on the other side”). The song shakes with an irresistible dance beat and an alternating call-and-response guitar. The rest is nearly as good. In the death-march “The Marshals Are Dead,” a paranoid Okereke shrieks “Forever!” into oblivion, and if the guitar attack of “Staying Fat” fails to match Fugazi’s, the track gets their syncopation down pat. “She’s Hearing Voices” takes an unfortunate step into too-obvious Joy Division parody, and Okereke’s lyrics can veer into Socialism for Dummies sloganeering (the poor are righteous and the rich are fat pigs, that sort of thing), but the power of Bloc Party is undeniable.
Silent Alarm, which reprises “Banquet,” is an even more powerful statement. Bloc Party’s secret is song structure; the band adds unbelievable tension by blasting listeners with unexpected feedback and withholding easy choruses. When they finally lay out a chorus (like in the Joy Division-worshipping “Price of Gasoline”), the prior restraint makes the release devastating. Okereke slams Dubya (“Helicopter”), despises musical celebrity (“Positive Tension”) and rails against existential despair (“Like Eating Glass”), but the real star is Tong, whose propulsive drumming supercharges the songs. The second half of the album is excellent in-your-face punk, but loses its lyrical focus, especially on “The Pioneers,” which is the disc’s low point. Still, however silly Okereke’s proclamations can sound, he sings them so ferociously that it’s clear at least he believes them. And while the band has the dynamic variety to let up on the reins for “Plans” and the lovely “So Here We Are,” Okereke’s intensity never wavers. Bloc Party may not have arrived first in the retro-’80’s sweepstakes, but this great album stakes their belated claim to it. The American release of Silent Alarm includes the majority of the EP.
A wide variety of outside hands, including Ladytron, Minotaur Shock, Four Tet, Mogwai, Jay Clark of Pretty Girls Make Graves and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, remixed the songs on Silent Alarm for a reissue CD. Not all the revisions are worthwhile — Ladytron’s mix of “Like Eating Glass” is particularly disappointing, smothering the fury of the original in a soft glaze — but the songs’ strong frameworks help most maintain their character. A bonus CD combines four B-sides — “Skeleton”, “Storm and Stress” (in both electric and acoustic versions) and an acoustic rendition of “Plans” — with a previously unreleased song, “Always New Depths.”
“Live the dream, live the dream / Like the ‘80s never happened,” Okereke sings in “Song for Clay (Disappear Here),” the opening track of A Weekend in the City. What could be read as an inopportune admission of revisionism or solipsism turns out to be a stirring statement of purpose: with its second album, Bloc Party steps forward from the retro pack and stakes out its own territory. Working with producer Jacknife Lee, the group improves on its already strong sense of structure and dynamics, adding much richer melodies and a more thoughtful lyrical outlook. Okereke drops his reliance on slogans and offers more personal observations on the institutionalized conformity and rueful loneliness at the heart of modern urban life. In “Hunting for Witches,” he decries the fear that hardens people’s lives in the wake of terrorist attacks: “Kill your middle class indecision / Now is not the time for liberal thought.” In “Waiting for the 7.18,” he yearns for something to add spark to a life that he fears has passed its peak: “Just give me moments / Not hours or days.” In “Where Is Home?” Okereke (the son of Nigerian immigrants) mourns a young black man killed by police: “The second generation blues…Different worlds and different rules…In every headline, we are reminded / That this is not home for us.” Musically, Bloc Party builds tension and release through quiet intros leading to urgent, driving main sections, without hardening that into a predictable template. The rhythm section is more supple than ever, providing one sturdy foundation after another for Gordon Moakes (whose multi-instrumental facility is put to great use) and guitarist Russell Lissack to build on. “Waiting for the 7.18” starts with delicate glockenspiel and plucked violins over washes of guitar, then bursts into lush cinematic glory that makes the simple chorus (“Let’s drive to Brighton on the weekend”) seem like a chance for redemption emerging from the despair. “The Prayer” features low, ominous humming over a foot-stomping rhythm, escalating to a dramatic chorus as Okereke pleads, “Tonight, make me unstoppable / And I will charm, I will slice / I will dazzle, I will outshine them all.” His prayer was answered, all to the good, as A Weekend in the City established Bloc Party as one of the most important rock bands to emerge in the 2000s. (Special editions of the CD in various countries append different bonus tracks and B-sides.)
Produced by Jacknife Lee and Paul Epworth (who helmed Silent Alarm and Bloc Party), Intimacy lives up to its title only about half the time. It’s a more polarized album, veering between strong, angry numbers and more tender material. It starts with the two most aggressive songs: “Ares” and “Mercury” feature cut-up chanting vocal tracks over pounding beats and careening, menacing Bomb Squad-style siren wails. “Trojan Horse” hurtles forward with a buzz and whirr that might make Aphex Twin sit up and take notice. “Halo” and “One Month Off” churn with a driving rock power reminiscent of the debut EP. On the gentler side, Okereke comforts a loved one who’s dying of cancer in “Biko” (not a Peter Gabriel cover): “I left you blueberries in the fridge / The little things that I can do.” In “Signs,” he sings to the spirit of a deceased lover (perhaps the same object of concern in “Biko”), “It was so like you to visit me / To let me know you were okay…Always worrying about someone else.” The album’s best moments occur in songs where Bloc Party manages to synthesize the dialectic. In “Ares,” the furious beat and war chant suddenly drop to a hushed bridge, as Okereke sings, “And to think that these hands / Could work wonders with their touch.” “Talons” combines celeste-and-glockenspiel-driven verses with a soaring, passionate chorus worthy of the best tracks on A Weekend in the City. Over the massed choirs and New Order-style beats of “Zephyrus,” the singer apologizes to a heartbroken lover for his inattention: “And all you said, in your quietest voice / Was, ‘I needed you as much as they do.’” The album closes with the celebratory “Ion Square,” in which Okereke asks his lover, “Who said unbroken happiness is a bore?” The production feels rushed — and Alan Moulder’s amped-up mix doesn’t help — but Intimacy’s best tracks show a dedication to continued growth. (As with its predecessor, different releases of Intimacy append bonus tracks that vary depending on the country of issue. Recommendation: get one that includes “Letter to My Son,” a spacious guitar-driven number that is among the band’s finest.)
Intimacy also received the remixed-and-reissued treatment. Perhaps since the original album took such a beat-heavy tone, the remixers (Armand Van Helden, John B., DJ Hervé, No Age, Gold Panda, Filthy Dukes, We Have Band and the British duo Villains) revamp in the opposite direction, favoring less aggressive approaches closer to trance and dub. The net result is not only more groove-oriented than the original album, but it’s actually more unified, even with so many hands involved. The Japanese release includes acoustic renditions of “Talons” and “Plans” and an extra remix of “Your Visits Are Getting Shorter.”
Following its 2009 tour, Bloc Party announced an indefinite hiatus as its members began side projects. Lissack had a head start, having assembled the dance-pop outfit Pin Me Down with American singer Milena Mépris two years earlier. (Perhaps the group’s name hints at Lissack’s growing frustrations with the confines of his regular band.) The group’s self-titled debut CD offers 11 tracks of by-the-numbers dance-pop. Mépris sings with the same throaty tone half the dance diva wannabes since Madonna have affected. Lissack’s guitar riffs make several songs — like “Cryptic,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “Pretty in Pink” (not the Psychedelic Furs song) and “Everything Is Sacred” — sound like a female-fronted Franz Ferdinand. Pin Me Down doesn’t overlook melodies or songwriting in its pursuit of the beat. It certainly won’t surprise anyone who’s paid any attention to pop radio for the past 30 years or so, but the less in-your-face, more song-focused approach here is refreshing.
Dropping his surname for his solo debut, The Boxer, Kele Okereke follows the increasingly beat-centric route that Bloc Party explored on Intimacy, but comes up with a more well-realized album. The sound is much more synth-focused than Bloc Party’s; indeed, stringed instruments are inaudible in the mix of all but three songs — and that’s counting the plucked orchestral instruments (assuming they aren’t synthesized) in “The New Rules.” As the CD opens, Okereke appropriates the old boot-camp chant “I don’t know what you’ve been told” over the Aphex-lite groove of “Walk Tall,” and alters his voice electronically to make it sound far more feminine in the cool, elegantly chorded “On the Lam.” These feints tend to bury the singer’s own personality, as if he (or his label) had chosen to release the “remixed” version before the original. But the grooves and arrangements improve from there, particularly on such standouts as “Tenderoni,” “The Other Side” (which mixes African rhythms and guitar styles into Bloc Party’s sound to good effect), the melodic break-up song “Everything You Wanted” (“I see the bags in the empty hallway / I can tell something has changed / I see the pain written over the face / And I know I pushed you too far”), the Bloc Party-like “Unholy Thoughts” and the spacious, restrained ballad “The New Rules,” which may offer a hint about his attitude toward (and his future involvement in) his principal band: “I’m learning to be laid-back about certain things.” The disc’s final two titles might be similarly oblique clues: “All the Things I Could Never Say” and “Yesterday’s Gone.”