Varied in tone and stylistically uncategorisable, one thing is clear about Bloc Party’s debut album: it’s bloody brilliant...
It’s the most cringeworthy thing a new band can do and Bloc Party are the latest band to be guilty of it. “We’re unpigeonholeable!” they’ve squealed in recent interviews. Sheesh, fellas, frankly you’re not being helpful. I’ve got more than 1,000 words to write and I fully intend on finding you a cosy little pigeonhole to squeeze into – sit back, relax, this won’t hurt a bit…
I’ve heard Bloc Party are the new Franz Ferdinand: arty, ’80s indie-recalling, danceable, the hipster band of choice. Coming from the same place Franz were 12 months ago – slightly off the radar but within its catchment… right? RIGHT?
Erm, no, not at all actually. The more you think about it, the less Franz (white, Scottish, could’ve existed any time from 1976 onwards) and Bloc Party ( Benetton boyband, from London, achingly 21st century) have in common. Another random example: vocally, they’re total opposites. Alex Kapranos’ voice is louche, dry, a knowing nod and a wink. Kele gulps with a “there’s a bomb on the bus!” urgency. So when people say Bloc Party are the new Franz, what they actually mean is Bloc Party are the band most likely to ‘do a Franz’ this year.
Recorded with Paul Epworth far away from their birthing pool in London’s New Cross (they originally came to NME’s attention on Angular Records’ legendary unsigned band compilation ‘ The New Cross’) in “polite, civilised and pretty” Copenhagen last year, ‘Silent Alarm’is no‘Franz Ferdinand’. In fact, listen to it with the words ‘popular’ and ‘arty’ in mind and its spirit is closer to the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘The Holy Bible’.
The themes of sex, boredom and consumption should be familiar to students of that haunting album. Just check the railing against America on the Bush -baiting ‘Helicopter’ (sample lyric: “Just like his dad, just like his dad (same mistakes)/Some things will never be different”). Or the military march-meets- Berlin Love Parade stomp of‘Price Of Gas’, the price of course being not 91.4p a litre but the corpses of thousands of innocent Iraqis (“I can tell you how this ends/We’re gonna win this – WAR WAR WAR WAR WAR WAR WAR!”).
Beyond politics, Kele and Gordon’s lyrics also take in sex (“I still feel you and the taste of cigarettes” – ‘Blue Light’), boredom and consumption (“The fear and the yearning/The fear and the consumption” –‘Positive Tension’) and loneliness/depression/paranoia in 21st-century Britain (the first lyric on the LP is “It’s so cold in this house”, for fuck’s sake).
But where they manage – yet again – to sneak out of a pigeonhole is that street preaching, manically or otherwise, is not for them. They’ve shied away from the sloganeering as they’ve got further into the public spotlight. Their official website has featured quotes from Bertrand Russell, nods to JG Ballard, and articles titled “What They Want Pop Stars To Be” and “Intellectualising Fleetwood Mac”. The album takes its name from a New Scientist article about an earthquake detection system in Japan, but the relevance to the band is obvious. ‘Silent Alarm’is an early-warning system, a wake-up call for seismic events to come, but not one that’s wielding a megaphone on a street corner.
Bloc Party are pretty slippery customers. Give them a ‘new Franz’ or ‘new Manics’ tag and ‘Silent Alarm’ will wriggle free in seconds. It’s an LP as committed to pigeonholes as Pete Doherty is to turning up on time for gigs. Within seconds of the listener discerning that ‘Silent Alarm’ is a fine punk-funk album (hear ‘ Helicopter’, the mouth-dryingly intense‘Pioneers’, the breakneck rumble of‘She’s Hearing Voices’), Bloc Party will pull out the sombre, least punk or funky thing possible (their‘Street Spirit’, ‘So Here We Are’, or the echoey, unsettling‘Compliments’). As quickly as I could declare them the finest emo band Britain’s ever produced, they’ll weasel out of it. The proof is unquestionable (the LP’s emotion and post-hardcore riffs backbone, and that in researching this review we found not one but two pictures of Kele wearing a backpack) but the xylophone-tastic, ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’-style epic ‘This Modern Love’ is so beyond emo it’s untrue. Which shows that Bloc Party are the Kriss Kross, Prince and Kate Bush -worshipping disposable pop kids that they have always claimed to be and not some maudlin post-punk muso types, as some have branded them.
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With The Libertines on ice, London needs to get moving again and Bloc Party are the band for the job. Not only can they match the Libs for musical urgency and passion, but
Bloc Party are managing to speak to people like Pete’n’Carl did too. They find “rock star behaviour completely abhorrent” (they’ll turn down that invite to Kate Moss’ next birthday party) and in that respect they’re the complete opposite of The Libertines. But in terms of the honesty and vulnerability shown here, and the fact that they’re unafraid to put themselves on the line, they are the true heirs to the Libs’ legacy.
They connect because their concerns are universal. Everyone knows someone like the woman suffering at the centre of‘She’s Hearing Voices’ – “She’s hearing voices call her/She’s hearing voices warn her/She just can’t sleep in her bed/She just can’t sleep.” Not being able to sleep (a clinical sign of depression, or maybe it’s just plain old heartbreak) appears elsewhere on this record; “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep/I can’t sleep, I can’t dream”, Kele sings on‘Like Eating Glass’. In the same song, there’s the latchkey kids we were or we knew in “The children sent home from school/Will not stop crying”.
The xylophone-powered anthem ‘This Modern Love’ was made for being 15 years old, lying on your bed staring at the ceiling (“You told me you wanted to eat up my sadness/Well jump on, enjoy, you can gorge away”).
And there’s the wonderful ‘Pioneers’ which manages to combine the ridiculous hopelessness and optimism of, well, life itself. “If it can be broke then it can be fixed”, Kele gasps, like he’s defusing a bomb. “If it can be fused then it can be split” – he is defusing a bomb! And the chorus continues
the theme with “We promised the world we’d tame it/What were we hoping for?”
Bloc Party aren’t just hoping, they’re trying. Maybe it’s over-long at 13 tracks but that’s just us being picky. ‘Silent Alarm’ is the unpigeonholeable soundtrack to 21st-century life as a cast-off. In a world of posers, fakers and bandwagon-jumpers, Bloc Party are unquestionably ‘4 real’. They never shy away from showing their truest feelings, even if those are of vulnerability or weakness. It’s this honesty which has spoken to people and will speak to a hell of a lot more when ‘Silent Alarm’ rings out beyond the desks of music journalists.
Bloc Party are to be believed in because they are a band for the whites, the blacks, the straights, the hip-hop kids, the freaks, the geeks, the emo kids, the punk-funkers, the queers and, yes, the fashionistas. Not because they are all these things (though they are a lot of them), nor because they’re all things to all men (in fact they’re the complete opposite). Back in 2002, Pete’n’Carl said it was‘Time For Heroes’. Well now it’s the anti-heroes’ time.