Bloc Party

The tendency is to want to avoid the hype. When some new band comes out with their first LP and is immediately showered with accolades, especially from the sources that are becoming the "usual suspects" where hype saturation is concerned, it is natural and understandable that half of us have the knee-jerk reaction of hating this band, sight unheard. And sometimes, this sort of refusal to buy in pays off--The Rapture, who were legitimately interesting before their DFA-engineered makeover, couldn't follow up on "House of Jealous Lovers", and I still haven't figured out why anyone cares about The Arcade Fire. On the other hand, any policy that involves head-in-sand behavior is not only short-sighted but liable to leave one in a position to crumble in the face of any opposition, when after 30 seconds or so it comes out that, in point of fact, you never have heard the band you're currently railing against. Knowing all of that, I figured I had better at least download the Bloc Party album, "Silent Alarm", so I could have an opinion on it when the inevitable discussion started up, at clubs or on message boards or wherever.

That was two weeks ago. Today I bought it. This would have happened sooner, but I was waiting for my next paycheck. And this is the kind of effect that Bloc Party has on you, the listener. It is not subtle, nor is it a slow, cumulative effect. It is immediate, and it is obvious. In fact, for me, it was hard to get past the first song. "Like Eating Glass" begins with a slow build, two guitars playing one note apiece in subtly different ways that slowly intertwine just as a quick, shuffling beat appears. One guitar changes, grows louder, then drops back out, to be replaced by the singer's voice. About halfway through the verse, a bass appears for the first time, adding a funky rhythm to the beat, both of which stand in sharp contrast to the guitar, still playing a single note, over and over. The tension created by this interplay continues throughout the first half of the song, as instruments randomly jump in and drop out, the entire band (two guitars, bass and drums) not playing at once until a full two minutes have passed. The first chorus releases all of the tension by plunging into an insanely catchy melodic hook, but the frantic pulse of the song never abates. By the end, you just want to start it all over, which is the trap I fell into for the first week or so I had the album.

Soon enough, though, I found myself moving deeper into the CD. There is always the fear, when one falls in love with the first song on a record, that none of the other tracks will measure up. I've certainly had that happen to me plenty of times. It's not the case, however, with "Silent Alarm." This is a solid album, with variation from song to song but a remarkably unified theme. The vocalist's undisguised British accent, and the sharp stabbing sound of the guitars, do a lot to send my thoughts in the direction of UK punk's second wave, circa 1979-1981. This era is a heavily relied-upon influence right now, and this trend is causing a lot of backlash towards the "dance punk" sound, of which Bloc Party can definitely be said to be practitioners. Gang of Four, in particular, have provided a key element of a lot of these bands' sound, and sure enough, Gang of Four's influence can be heard in Bloc Party's sound. It's not what you'd expect, though--the basslines are funky at times, though nowhere near as often as David Allen's celebrated work on "Entertainment!" What Bloc Party take from Gang of Four is something I never would have been able to put my finger on, had it not been pointed out by the Greil Marcus essay included as liner notes in my first Gang of Four purchase, the cassette compilation "A Brief History of the 20th Century." What Marcus noticed about Gang of Four's sound was the way that a lot of the musical tension created by their songs is generated by instruments moving into and out of the arrangement. Basslines disappear, and when they come back the drums drop out. Guitar lines will end in long, diminishing sustained chords, leaving the rhythm section to carry entire verses by themselves. This technique can be pointed out in Bloc Party's sound in the aforementioned first half of "Like Eating Glass," but it recurs throughout the record, notably in "Price of Gas" and "Positive Tension."

The latter song title provides, perhaps unintentionally, a sort of manifesto for Bloc Party's sound. Much like Gang of Four and their contemporaries, such as Wire and Joy Division, they use nervous energy as a propulsive force. But don't write them off as a one-trick pony--while Gang of Four's funk bounce may have been the ideal soundtrack for leaning against a wall, tapping a foot and casting paranoid sidelong glances at everyone else in the room, Bloc Party want you to get off that wall and dance--and smile while you're doing it. "Positive Tension" is reminiscent of the more rock n' roll oriented bands of the initial British punk explosion, such as the Damned or the Stranglers. "This Modern Love" evokes the best of the mid-80s synth-driven new wave, without actually using any synths. Meanwhile, the operatic sustain of the guitar lines on "Pioneers" are nicked from The Chameleons but rendered nearly unrecognizable as they appear here, layered over a rhythm section groove that's more like early New Order than anything else.

There are one or two slow songs here, but they are the exceptions. "Silent Alarm" is a fast record. It's also a punk rock record, though it may not seem as much so to kids weaned on today's mainstream punk approximations; Sum 41, Yellowcard, New Found Glory, etc. Truth is, Bloc Party is probably closer to the spirit of punk rock than those bands and their ilk. Punk rock was never meant to be something so predictable as a sound, and in fact it wasn't for a long time. Punk rock is more of a feeling than anything, a feeling of discontentment with one's immediate surroundings, an awareness that something is off and that things are not quite what they seem, especially when seemingly arbitrary authority figures assure us that they are. Bloc Party's frantic melodies and nervously propulsive rhythms are not intended to be retro, to hark back to some past that nostalgia renders more appetizing than it ever actually was. Instead, they are updating a message that just such a sound carried to listeners a quarter of a century ago. "Silent Alarm" is the sound of paranoia, of nervousness even when surrounded by unprecedented prosperity. At a time when most of the country seems to prefer to remain fat, dumb, and happy in the face of looming disaster, this album calls us to remain vigilant and keep our bullshit detectors at the ready. And hey, may as well dance while we're at it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is Brian Nicholson, from the LPTJ forums. You discuss something I haven't heard people mention in all the Bloc Party talk: The mood of nervousness. Everyone's lumping it in with other stuff (Franz Ferdinand, the general ideas of dancepunk and Gang Of Four influence) to pick up on that crucial difference, which really makes them better than their contemporaries. So, congratulations.

3:35 AM  
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