29 January 2016; Infectious
From the opening drum fill of debut single ‘She’s Hearing Voices’, you knew Bloc Party were something different. Melding elements of electronica and house music with the typical rock setup of guitar, bass and drums, they quickly won the approval of both critics and audiences, earning themselves the role as the poster boys of the 00s indie movement. The band behind such anthems as ‘Banquet’, ‘Helicopter’ and ‘Flux’, Bloc Party were as culturally important in the mid 00s as the Motorola Razr, with their seminal album Silent Alarm allowing the band to reach huge levels of success and influence many of the big players in the scene today.
However, a lot has happened since then; Bloc Party have undergone numerous changes since their breakthrough in 2004, most importantly a switch in personnel, with long standing members Gordon Moakes (bass) and Matt Tong (drums) being replaced by Justin Harris (of Portland indie rock band Menomena) and Louise Bartle (a 21 year old drumming prodigy discovered on YouTube). A change that, when coupled with front man Kele Okereke’s solo ventures into alternative dance and deep house, has clearly led to an evolution in the band’s sound on new album Hymns. This move was somewhat necessary given the clear shifts in the musical environment since Silent Alarm, with many of Bloc Party’s counterparts that existed in the 00s indie rock heyday having fallen by the wayside or equally failed to reinvent themselves sufficiently to stand the test of time.
there’s a lack of dynamism that made listening to ‘Helicopter’ so exciting
Bloc Party’s latest offering sees the band undergo a drastic sonic transformation, adopting a far more stripped back sound that borrows more from gospel and synthpop than indie rock. A noticeable deviation comes in the form of Bartle’s drumming, which is far more restrained in comparison to the frenetic pace of Matt Tong, whilst lead guitarist and founding member Russell Lissack swaps his trademark noodling guitar riffs for synth-like guitar effects. Such drastic changes in direction are apparent from the outset, with album opener and first single ‘The Love Within’ epitomizing all of these new touches and a far cry from the fast-paced rock tunes that allowed the band to make their name over a decade ago.
However, during its first act, Hymns struggles to find consistency, as such a sonic rebirth has led to a number of misfires along the way. Second single, ‘The Good News’, sees the band attempt blues, complete with a rather odd slide guitar chorus and a Deep South referencing refrain of “go down to the water to pray”. This track in particular does standout as a strange deviation in a mostly electronically tinged album and plods somewhat precariously to a lethargic end, something that a fair number of tracks on the album threaten to do. When a band as lauded as Bloc Party release new material, comparisons to their earlier material are inevitable, and in the case of Hymns, Bloc Party seem to be lacking the hard hitting, majestic chorus that they used to craft so expertly. Songs like ‘The Love Within’ and ‘So True’ build, but don’t quite go anywhere, with the album being filled with mainly mid-tempo tracks. Whilst it’s clear Lissack is attempting to revolutionize his playing techniques using the guitar as an instrument of white noise, there’s a lack of dynamism that made listening to ‘Helicopter’ so exciting.
ambient synths build to a perfect dénouement with a celebratory tone
That’s not to say that this more minimalist approach does not work effectively at all. The intimate synthpop ballad ‘Fortress’ and the atmospheric ‘Different Drugs’ see Okereke utilizing his exalted falsetto and exhibiting great emotional depth lyrically. As the title of the album suggests, the record largely centers around the themes of faith and devotion. Whether its through the persistent use of choirs, the track title ‘For Only He Can Heal Me’ or references to ‘saviors’ and ‘temples’, a religious theme runs through the core of the album and acts as a metaphor for the emotional turmoil and hardships that Okereke has experienced.
The album’s final third in particular sees the band hitting their stride. Electro-pop ‘Virtue’ is the album’s most radio-friendly offering; a strutting bass line and gospel choir is the antithesis to the brutally honest ‘Exes’. In turn, ‘Exes’ is one of the album’s finest and darker moments, harking back to a Bloc Party of old. The ode to his ex-lovers is subtle yet powerful as Okereke reflects on his past life and acknowledges the need to move on, with the echoing refrain of “I must try”. It is textually interesting, complete with synth underlays and whistling tremolo guitar solo, although most importantly it makes use of Bartle’s drumming talent. Final track ‘Living Lux’, in many ways confirms the transformation of Bloc Party into this maturer, minimalist band. As ambient synths build to a perfect dénouement with a celebratory tone: “so raise your glass my old friend for we both know this is the end”. The perfect end to an imperfect album, ending on a note of wonder, wondering what more Bloc Part MKII has to offer.
It is important to understand that this is very much a new Bloc Party, with the band focusing on reinventing their sound rather than taking the easier route of reworking their previous hits in an attempt to take another shot at the big time. One lyric which sums up this change in direction comes on ‘Into the Earth’, where Okereke boldly states: “Rock and roll has got so old, just give me neo soul”, somewhat justifying the sonic departure, how the band has moved on and returned with an album filled with tenderness and maturity. What made Bloc Party so engaging when they first burst onto the scene in 2004 was their ability to subvert the norm, and whist Hymns may be inconsistent, it is most definitely not without its highlights and moments of magic.