After electronic excursions and solo outings, the British indie rock ensemble is back, marrying its recent experiments with some downright grungy riffage.
Devoted fans of British indie rock, I understand why the glow surrounding your relationship with Bloc Party may have diminished in the last few years. Maybe the electronic textures and claustrophobic atmosphere of the quartet’s last LP Intimacy (2008) weren’t your cup of tea. And maybe you indulged frontman Kele Okereke’s outright electro-dance solo effort The Boxer (2010) and its half-crap/half-amazing lead single “Tenderoni” all while craving more of the spiky guitars and tightly-wound rock grooves that made Bloc Party a band worth rallying around in the mid-aughts. Surely the two-year hiatus the group instated in 2009 didn’t help mend the growing distance.
Good news then, you Anglophilic indiephiles, as a refreshed and reconciliatory Bloc Party has returned to try and sweep you off your feet again. Admittedly, Four isn’t as energetic as Silent Alarm or as moving as A Weekend in the City, to this day still Bloc Party’s strongest recordings. That aside, Four is a commendable comeback, if you feel obliged to use the word. It’s a record that’s more focused than the last two Bloc Party albums and one which finds the group in top fighting form, its fists balled up and its collective stare cold and unshakable. These lads carry themselves as if they have something to prove, to both their fans and their competitors. Listening to “3X3”, for instance, Okereke’s distressed wailing comes off like he wants to show Muse’s Matt Bellamy how it’s done right. And props to him, he does indeed.
Though Bloc Party places itself on the offensive, Four shouldn’t be categorized as something as trite as a “return to rock” record. Yes, there is a fair bit of that going on, as Okereke and fellow guitarist Russell Lissack can be spotted unloading some of their heaviest riffs on the album’s dark and menacing rockers. But it’s done in skewed fashion. Opener “So He Begins to Lie” doesn’t destroy all comers out of the gate as might be expected; instead, the listener is treated to the sound of the band futzing about the studio before it begins proceedings properly with a zig-zagging mid-tempo riff. None of the experiments undertaken on Intimacy are forgotten -- indeed, that LP’s repetitious electronic elements prevail in alternating tracks. “Octopus” makes a call-and-response routine out of an oscillating synth tone and a ringing guitar part, and the rumbling low-end, handclaps, and infectious “Show / Show / Show, show me” chorus of “VALIS” make it a worthy candidate for indie dancefloor popularity this season (though Phoenix is bound to want some cash due to the refrain’s squint-test similarity to the one off its own “1901”). The aching vulnerability of A Weekend in the City is also a palpable presence -- see the yearning, chiming ballad “Day Four” and the forlorn cooing that emanates from the speakers as “The Hurting” unfurls.
If rock is what you came for, there is plenty to satiate you. Bloc Party’s approach for Four downplays the band’s ‘80s post-punk debt and instead opts for modern metal riffing placed in grunge song structures. “Kettling” is characterized by big reverby drums and thick Seattle guitars, adding a Smashing Pumpkins-style guitar solo that inches towards outright Van Halen territory near before wrapping up for good measure. “Coliseum” has a gritty acoustic blues riff that gives way to the sort of sleazy riffing that’s typically a signal for Scott Weiland to come slithering out, bullhorn at the ready. The album concludes with “We’re Not Good People”, its staccato bass, stuttering drums, and Deep Purple hard rock guitars ensuring listeners will be left with krinks in their necks after thrashing along.
Mind you, none of the brawnier numbers are a match for past Bloc Party heavy hitters “Helicopter” or “Hunting for Witches”. Attack and melodic songcraft aren’t as balanced as in the past, as Bloc Party instead chooses to emphasize the former whenever it’s compelled to flex its muscles. A song like “Coliseum” suffers from such divided attentions, as it shifts sections with little regard to flow or finesse in its transitions. Perhaps unsurprisingly Four functions best as a sustained listen instead of isolated tracks, where the looping dance beats, colossal riffs, and tender pinings can play off one another in long-form. Past offerings are proof that all those elements can indeed coexist peacefully in the Bloc Party milieu -- Four merely reminds the indie faithful of the fact in its own roundabout way.