Batten down the hatches and light the torches. Bloc Party is Paul Revere music. It is a rallying cry on swift horseback, a revolving lighthouse floodlight penetrating wind, ice, rain, and snow. The London-based quartet lives in a succession of tensions: little tic-addled songs that breathe deadlines, generated by dual-turreted guitars that spiral up the rhythm section like a neon double helix. Lead singer Kele Okereke’s sentences are proclamatory, repeated in half-human/half-machine cadences, chopped in half with jarring syntax—every thing a siren, every thing a flashing light. While hardly revolutionary, Bloc Party is nonetheless reactionary, and thrillingly so. To paraphrase Longfellow, the band’s full-length debut Silent Alarm is “a voice in the darkness, a knock at the door”. From first impression to umpteenth listen, that is what it sounds like to us.
This is what Silent Alarm, in its arm waving and attention getting, is telling us. There are unconscionable perils in trying to fix a world that doesn’t want to be fixed. The ambition demanded by such a task can lead to overindulgence and failure. This world ain’t just m-m-m-made of facts. Silent Alarm‘s world is our world, populated with paranoia and a false sense of security, where deceptions and solutions fight for air like lightning bugs in a glass bottle.
Although it gets its ammunition from societal fallacies, Bloc Party rouses you; its turbulent, moody tussling is both physically reeling and endlessly infectious. Since late 2003 when it was hand-picked to support Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party has been another cog in the indomitable hype machine, gathering acclaims in its native UK, branded as a savior of this and reviver of that. If someone tells you the band is this year’s Franz Ferdinand, don’t believe him: with the exception of an occasional guitars-as-epees duel, the two bands sound nothing alike. Likewise, tune out comparisons to Joy Division or Gang of Four or any other measuring stick du jour; like any other band on the planet, Bloc Party has its influences, but Silent Alarm is ultimately defined individually, not influentially.
Thanks to the crack band and jagged production, Silent Alarm sounds expressively open in some spots and shockingly claustrophobic in others. The album opens with “Like Eating Glass”, as potent and gripping a lead-off as The Bends’ “Planet Telex”. As one of the album’s many songs that evolves from a rhythmic rattle into a tensionless exclamation, “Like Eating Glass” bears passing swarms of guitars and a convulsive drum pattern, its instruments eventually congealing into a taut coalition of elasticity. “Positive Tension”, built on a looming DJ Shadow-ish groove, is swamped by injections of crushing sound, a conquering that rises above the looped drum-bass regimen. A forceful, distorted drum track is the backbone of “She’s Hearing Voices”; guitars violently infiltrate the insistent pounding, coupled with Okereke’s wooden chants (“Red pill, blue pill”). As a musical force, Bloc Party is electrifying throughout the record, railing through the whiplash drum scuttles and nimble guitar twinkles in “Luno”, burrowing into the emphatic single-note revelry in “Little Thoughts”, and stomping out the boot-march tempo of “Price of Gas”. Only briefly and intermittently does Silent Alarm play it safe (the unspectacular tracks “Plans”, “Blue Light”, and single “Banquet”), but its engaging flow is never derailed.
Okereke’s lyrics are the basics of cause-and-effect, disconnected and disaffected, spiked with sarcasm both frowning and defeated. The words aren’t exactly delivered as melodies (an exception being the harmony-salved “This Modern Love”); instead, they’re sent kicking from Okereke’s mouth, erratically punctuated and sectioned off, intended to impact with imagery and delivery. “Pioneers” notes the balancing act endured by a one-step-up-two-steps-back mentality (“If it can be broke then it can be fixed / If it can be fused then it can be split”), and uses its weightless chorus to question concepts of improvement: “We promised the world we’d tame it / What were we hoping for?” In “Like Eating Glass”, Okereke speaks of abandonment and isolation: “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep / I can’t sleep, I can’t dream / An aversion to light / Got a fear of the ocean”. “Helicopter” is an indictment of blind faith, possibly even a figure like President Bush or Prime Minister Blair in particular, the loose-limbed dance groove somersaulting over itself. “He’s born a liar, he’ll die a liar,” Okereke speak-sings over the song’s throbbing rhythmic lurch. “Stop being so American / There’s a time and a place / So James Dean / So blue jeans… / Are you hoping for a miracle?”
If miracles are fantasies of the optimists and tamers are one whip-crack away from having their head taken off, then Okereke and Bloc Party are the realists crashing the world’s gala of delusion. Silent Alarm ends soberly with the calm, reflective “Compliments”. “We sit and sigh / And nothing gets done,” Okereke confesses, discouraged. “What are we coming to? / What are we gonna do?” While Bloc Party is not exactly the sound of revolution, that’s because it’s only just starting to spread the word that one is needed.
// Notes from the Road
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