People used to buy physical copies of records. This process, known then as the music business, involved exchanging hard currency for acetate or vinyl. It was intimately connected to the record stores in which this took place processing and pigeonholing bands for commercial purposes. However, by the early ‘90s, bands were blurring the lines between music in the rock/pop sections and the dance/electronic sections of these record stores. On a mainstream level that was very commercially appealing. Bloc Party were a part of this, too, helping to demolish indie kids’ prejudices towards dance music, and perhaps even towards dancing itself. They also performed several spectacular ram-raids on the charts with killer singles like “Helicopter”, “Banquet”, and, more recently, “Flux”.
Bloc Party broke ground by making likable, acute, music that was radio-ready and had big pop hooks. By drawing on influences like Gang of Four, Talking Heads, and Wire, they opened up people’s ears to the post-punk past. By allowing electronically-inclined produces to remix their songs, they made the dance floor accessible to people who formed opinions about music in the aftermath of ‘90s superclub culture. They gave everyone from music obsessives to passive consumers something to think and talk about, too.
The band’s hiatus after the release of 2008’s Intimacy gave Bloc Party’s frontman, Kele Okereke, the time to move to Berlin, and work with producers XXXChange and Hudson Mohawke in New York. In that time, Kele beefed up and made his sound more muscular, too.
On The Boxer, Kele has made a record from solid gold beats and squelching synths. It splatters, full of processed clunks and an air of intensity different to Bloc Party’s brooding anthems. This is the central point of difference between Kele’s solo output and that of Bloc Party. Where the latter were, defiantly, a rock band who dabbled with electronics, Kele’s music begins from a position of pure eclecticism and spreads outward.
The Boxer’s biggest hitters are its first three tracks, “Walk Tall”, “On the Lam”, and “Tenderoni”. Disappointingly, they are heavy-handed where they need to be just heavy. Meanwhile, tracks like “The New Rules” and “All The Things I Could Never Say” are half-hearted when they should be full-blooded. It’s not clear whether it’s greater or lesser than the sum of its parts, because the math just doesn’t add up: it equates inner-city dubstep sounds with gentrified electro and globalized percussion, and it all sounds scrubbed up and sanitized.
If Kele’s been digging the crates, his findings sound more like he’s been tearing leaves out of textbooks than concocting theories and baffling us with a fevered imagination. It sounds like he’s been doing calculations and drawing graphs on his influences’ effectiveness rather than hammering his musical loves relentlessly.
“Tenderoni” is a buzzing club banger, sure, but its overhanging hook tries too hard to sound authentically housey. It’s not deep or resonant enough to match the dubstep it so wants to emulate, either. However, the martial opener, “Walk Tall”, drills and demands attention, complete with a creeped-out anti-chorus. “On the Lam”, meanwhile, sounds like a combination of uplifting ‘90s house, the brutal hardcore of that same period, with a contemporary sheen borrowed from Timbaland and Skream.
The Boxer is a thicker, heavier, version of the sort of music DFA were putting out almost 10 years ago. It doesn’t sound dated, but it does sound like Kele’s waited a long time to have his way and apply lessons that he learned during the early days of Bloc Party on his own terms. However, the album he’s made is much more successful when bent on making bodies jump, as his chaotic live sets have proved. As a result, the album isn’t particularly lovable, but it isn’t an artistic failure, either. Where The Boxer gobbles up contemporary music and spits it back out, hopefully, Kele will refine his palate for future offerings to turn out something more solid and consistent.