The last Bloc Party record before their latest was four years ago, which was par for the course for the British band that, since 2008’s Intimacy, released studio albums every four years. In the years between their last set, 2016’s Hymns, and this year’s Alpha Games, lead singer Kele Okereke was prolific, putting out a series of albums, EPs, and singles. Returning as a unit, Bloc Party come back with a crackling new set that explores various sides of their signature dance-rock sound. It’s a superb return to form for Bloc Party, much-awaited, and an excellent entry to a fantastic and idiosyncratic discography.
“Traps” is the fabulous first single that recalls 1970s dance-rock and power-punk bands like Blondie. It’s a propulsive number full of crunchy guitars and machine-gun drums. Okereke’s charismatic vocals shout the deliciously flirtatious lyrics: “Hey, fun-size, is it your first time? / Let me show you things / That they warned about / You’ve got bite, I like that.” The pace is breathtakingly quick, and a grinding bass pushes the song forward like a hurtling subway. The producers do a bang-up job capturing the grimy, dirty New York dance-rock/punk sound of Max’s Kansas City or CBGB. It’s a great song that re-introduces Bloc Party to radio after their hiatus.
Because “Traps” feels like an homage to the 1970s, it feels apt that “The Girls Are Fighting” followed the single as Alpha Games’ second release. A marching number that sounds like the most decadent of glam rock, the lyrics offer menacing images of violence, describing “blood on the dance floor, extensions on the bar” and the titular ladies duking out whilst “the boys can’t cope”. It tells the story of a shitshow of a night out that devolves into melee. Okereke narrates this disaster of an evening with a gleeful sneer, recounting the volatile scene. The loud drums and plodding beat add a sinister layer to the misanthropic tune.
From the stomping 1970s rock, Bloc Pary also flirt with dreamy 1980s-inspired new wave with the lilting, emotional “If We Get Caught”. It’s the kind of open-hearted, earnest pop song meant to be danced to with abandon. Okereke anchors the tune with a beautiful performance, but the ethereal, haunting backup vocals elevate the song. It’s one of the band’s finest moments and should be given immediate classic status. It’s a great juxtaposition to the album’s first two singles because as snarky and preening as “Traps” and “The Girls Are Fighting” are, “If We Get Caught” is so wonderfully wistful and yearning.
Other high points on Alpha Games approach the loveliness of “If We Get Caught”. Leaning into a dancier, funkier sound, “You Should Know the Truth” is another high point. It’s a strutting tune with some excellent electric guitar work and percussion – and like “If We Get Caught”, the loose, disparate harmonies are heavenly. “Of Things Yet to Come” is another moment on Alpha Games that is heartachingly beautiful in its melancholy – it’s a bracing New Romantic anthem that is lush with sweeping synths, stadium-rock guitars and a swirling melody that is gorgeous.
So many of Alpha Games’ fiery numbers make the record an exciting listen, but the thoughtful, pensive moments lift the album to something genuinely special. Yes, “Sex Magik”, with its loping dance beats, is excellent, and the rumbling bass-heavy “Rough Justice” is a furious wonder (the house-inspired breaks are inspired). But Bloc Party coalesce into sheer beauty on songs like the album’s closer, “The Peace Offering”, a brooding, moody ballad featuring a bleak, lonely electric guitar and a shuffling beat Okereke gives a dramatic spoken-word performance. The magic of his voice – that appealing howl of a cry – is that it injects a pained urgency and tension, which sits exquisitely with the collaborative work of band partners, Russell Lissack, Harris, and Bartle. Alpha Games shows a great band engaging with their sound yet growing and expanding.