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Album Review: Bloc Party – Four [Frenchkiss]

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.

Buy Four from Amazon

Album Review: Kele – The Boxer [Polydor/Wichita/Glassnote]

Kele Okereke is the frontman for dance rock group Bloc Party. When the band bust onto the music scene in 2005 with their debut album “Silent Alarm”, many hailed them as brilliant innovators on the forefront of something incredible. Well, time passed, hype died down, and after two follow-up albums that didn’t quite capitalize on their initial record’s promise, Bloc Party decided to take a little bit of a break. It’s been during this short hiatus that Okereke has taken it upon himself to experiment with some new sounds and make a record on his own, calling the new project simply Kele. The solo debut is titled “The Boxer” and it’s out this week.

Given Bloc Party’s propensity for making dance music that’s driven by guitars and strong beats, you had to figure that Kele would dive in one direction or the other when it came time to going solo. It would seem a little odd though if he chose the rock direction instead of the dance one, which is why he smartly made a beeline towards electronica. Bloc Party’s last album “Intimacy” all but spelled that out for you anyways. The beats on “The Boxer” tend to come fast and furious, seemingly setting you up for a really fun dance party, all backed by that familiar voice of his. Guitars are almost entirely absent across the album, though they do make appearances here and there, perhaps most notably on “The Other Side”. That and “Unholy Thoughts” are probably the tracks that sound the most like the Bloc Party stuff you’re familiar with – the latter so much so that you’ve got to wonder if it was a leftover from the “Intimacy” sessions. But primarily you get a whole lot of swirling electronica that, while great for the clubs, has to make you wonder exactly how different it is from the thousands of other electro artists out there. Kele is no innovator, at least not in the sense that somebody like Flying Lotus or Aphex Twin have been. Though he may be relatively new at trying to do all this on his own, for somebody with a decent track record as part of Bloc Party, you’d expect him to stumble less than most others might. Well, throw out those expectations, because Kele has stumbled out of the starting gate.

When it comes to experimenting with sounds and trying things outside of his own comfort zone, Kele seems to do okay. You get a song like “On the Lam”, wherein he turns up the helium pitch on his vocals to the point where if you didn’t know any better, you might suspect that a woman has taken over singing duties. That combined with some solid beats draws your attention to what might have been a relatively pedestrian song otherwise. Similarly, a song like “Rise” starts off pensively with some xylophone work that sticks around just long enough to get boring, but then transforms into a massive build-up and release that’s one of the most cathartic and exhilarating moments on the entire record. It’s just too bad those kinds of moments are so few and far between on “The Boxer”. What also comes too few and far between? How about the hooks. There’s barely any to be found, as Kele apparently thinks he can skate by on some decent beats sustained through much of a song. Either that, or he was so busy crafting these songs that he just plain forgot that sometimes you need an oft-repeated chorus to stick in peoples’ heads. So because of the lack of hooks, there aren’t any singular tracks you’ll remember easily and want to go back to. Sure, you may come away from the album thinking it was a good time, but beyond that there’s little to keep you invested in repeat plays. Add that to the gloomy lyrics on this record that most Bloc Party songs have as well, and there’s something else to not waste your time on. But if you really want to hear sad, turn on the pair of ballads the album has to offer in the form of “New Rules” and “All the Things I Could Never Say”. Kele gets super emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve for those songs, and the results are more whiny than they are elegantly sad poetry. Yes, he’s upset, but we could do without the self-aggrandizing platitudes, most of which don’t help us identify with the turmoil he’s going through.

Since we’re talking about “The Boxer”, let’s spar with some wordplay for a minute in an attempt to wrap this whole thing up. With the martial stomp of “Walk Tall”, Kele comes charging out of his corner seemingly ready for a fight to knock our senses off balance. While he does land a few good punches initially, especially heading into “On the Lam”, we quickly come to realize that though this is a horse of a different color, we’ve faced this opponent in some capacity before as part of Bloc Party. In that respect, we’re able to get a better grasp as to where he’s coming from and what moves he might make. The words he’s throwing at us are the same as they’ve always been, so we can defend against that pretty easily. And then after the first round the coach in our corner tells us that Kele is having some severe problems with his hooks. He can jab just fine, but seems mechanically unable to bring a strong punch around any other way. The times he tries to force a hook on us, it’s something we can easily dodge and counter with brute force. That’s his main weakness, and we can exploit it for the rest of the match. After a couple rounds he’s in much worse shape than us, despite having the occasional trick or engaging melody up his sleeve. Kele then takes his love of the dramatic to new heights, looking to give the crowd more of a spectacle than an actual victory. He slows down the tempo and wears disappointment on his face in an effort to convince us to take it easy on him. It’s not that we’re heartless, it’s just that his display sounds and feels manipulative, which it most likely is. So we don’t let up. Kele goes down, and the match is quickly over. Our moral victory, in this case, is that we don’t have to listen to “The Boxer” again if we don’t want to. Will Kele fair better when/if he returns to Bloc Party? There’s only one way to answer that question: probably.

Kele – Tenderoni (Punches Bring the Horns Remix)

Buy “The Boxer” from Amazon

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