It’s been four years since Bloc Party released their last album Intimacy, and a couple things have happened since then. Frontman Kele Okereke took the more electronica leanings of Intimacy and explored them fully on his own with his 2010 solo album The Boxer. The response from critics and the general public was largely mixed, but in spite of that there were suggestions Bloc Party might not return or would return but with a different singer. Okereke recounted in an interview how he observed all the other guys in the band entering a rehearsal space without him, getting him worried they might be continuing on without him. That was quickly followed by a comment from guitarist Russell Lissack saying they wanted to make new music and decided to have a few jam sessions without the very busy Okereke to try and figure out where they wanted to go next. Hours after it was reported that the future of Bloc Party might be in jeopardy, a post appeared on the band’s website denying that any lineup changes were happening. Now nearly a year later, they’re back with everyone intact and a new full length, Four. If you think they’re going to pick right back up where they left off though, you don’t know Bloc Party.
By calling their album Four, Bloc Party are reminding us of a few things. First and foremost, there are four members of the band. Secondly, it’s been four years since their last album. And thirdly, this is their fourth album of original material. There’s probably a fourth point, just to keep the whole number theme going, but exactly what that is could be considered open for debate. More important than any number games though are the songs themselves. The electronica leanings of Intimacy? They’re almost completely gone. In some respects, so are the dance rock leanings of their first two records Silent Alarm and A Weekend in the City. They’ve been there and done that, more often than not with mixed results. Dance rock mostly died off years ago, and the electronica scene is dominated by dubstep, which isn’t such a good idea for a full band to try (see: new Muse). So for a band that’s made their name on those sounds, what’s the next step on the evolutionary chain? Take what you’ve got and use it to the fullest. Say hello to Bloc Party: alternative rock band.
Four opens with an element that a lot of bands try when they’re trying to sound raw and underproduced – they insert some “sounds of the studio.” In this particular case a comparison can be drawn to the beginning of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, where you’re greeted with the sound of a guitar being plugged into an amp. That was to signify their move away from the electronic-based textures of Kid A and Amnesiac and their return to more guitar-based rock. Bloc Party are making a similar move, which is why you hear some guitar scrapes amid a snippet of dialogue before the band launches into “So He Begins to Lie.” The effect is not nearly the same however, especially since Bloc Party are coming off a streak of increasingly mediocre records. While you’d expect their return to rock music to perhaps reinvigorate their creativity like it did early in their careers, they trip and fall right out of the gate. “So He Begins to Lie” has some angularly heavy guitars that wind up sounding like a mixture of 311 and early Muse. There’s nothing particularly inspiring about it, as it’s missing a brisker pace and a hook that genuinely grabs your attention. First tracks are designed to suck the listener in and make them want more, but this comes off sounding like a Silent Alarm b-side.
When Four truly begins is with “3×3,” a very meaty and metal-inspired track that races with fury matched by a heroic vocal performance from Okereke. The bridge, with a whispered “no means no” building to a cathartic scream of “Yes!” makes for one of the album’s early highlights. Okereke also does great work on “Kettling,” his voice cutting like a hot knife through the dirge of what feels like a cross between The Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots. But his singing aside, much of the record actually does seem like a collection of influences from the ’90s and early ’00s. The acoustic guitar first half of “Coliseum” is an almost blatant rip-off of one-hit wonders Days of the New, with the nightmareish punk-metal second half might best be classified as Arctic Monkeys with a Metallica twist. Soundgarden are channeled on the album closing “We Are Not Good People,” in what might be the most intense and loud songs Bloc Party have ever made. That doesn’t make it good however, because what Four really suffers from is an identity crisis.
Mixed between all the heavy stuff are softer songs and the lighter dance numbers that bear the familiar markings of the earliest and best Bloc Party material. Four‘s first single is “Octopus,” a track that seems designed in every way to convince you that the band you know and love is back. The jittery guitar riff that’s the basis of the song feels eerily reminiscent of Portishead’s “Machine Gun,” and while it’s ripe for remixing, it doesn’t quite have a high enough BPM rate to make it dance-worthy on its own. The chorus isn’t as instantly memorable as some of the band’s greatest hits either, likely leading to its inability to gain the massive sort of popularity the band wants and needs right now. By contrast, “Team A” does have the energy and instrumental groundwork to succeed, but it sorely lacks transitions and an actual chorus. Where the band fares best are in the moments when they don’t come off like they’re trying too hard. “Day Four” may fall somewhere in between The Temper Trap and Minus the Bear with its stylistic references, but it’s a genuinely beautiful and heartfelt moment that recalls a Bloc Party classic like “Blue Light” and nearly lives up to its high bar. Fans of “This Modern Love” can probably find plenty to love about “Truth,” which is one of the few moments where it seems like the band is being honest with us about who they are. If only the record’s other ballads “Real Talk” and “The Healing” were as creative and interesting.
The one trump card that Bloc Party unleash on Four is “V.A.L.I.S.” It might not be a barn burner equivalent to say “Banquet” or “Helicopter,” but it’s an intelligently crafted, catchy song with a healthy bounce to it. That foundation is really the basis for what made Bloc Party such a well-respected band in the first place. The off-kilter guitar work of Russell Lissack and driving drum hits of Matt Tong are at the heart of what makes the band great, and not using either to the best of their abilities as on Intimacy causes the overall results to suffer. For this album, Lissack is relegated to loud and heavy riffs instead of punchy hand-picked creativity, while Tong exercises brute force trying mostly to keep up with everything going on around him. The record’s unsettled variety pack of styles doesn’t do them many favors either. In other words, Bloc Party sound lost. Perhaps they made the conscious decision to throw a bunch of things at a wall to see what would stick. While it is nice to hear them taking some real risks, it’d be even better if they would jump in with both feet instead of dipping a toe in the water. Hopefully their next one will do exactly that, even if it is unlike anything we’ve heard them try before.