The British hype machine, still the world-leader in industrialized subliminal marketing, has churned out a new pop phenomenon for consumption by the hipster bourgeoisie. Their name is...
I am not good at spotting trends. The whole sport-coat over a tight-fitting t-shirt thing? At first, I thought it was just because the people around my college campus had particularly poor fashion sense. The ubiquitous silky silver sheen of an iBook G4? My latest computer purchase was a generic Acer behemoth that would crush my thigh bones and render me impotent if I dared use it as a 'laptop.' A movie about a lithium-popping twentysomething finding himself in the bosom of Natalie Portman? Uh... no, I haven't seen it. Hadn't heard the soundtrack either, until I entered my first student coffeehouse. Now I've heard it so many times I might as well own it.
I take delight in modern rock and roll, but I don't read music press or hang around people who do, so the hottest new acts arrive at my table at best lukewarm. I discovered OK Computer in 2001. I bought a Nirvana compilation in 2002. I learned that Coldplay was apparently somewhat popular about mid-2004. You get the picture. In addition, I have not listened to the most important, defining, brilliant musicians of the past, rock's luminaries, the greatest of the greatest... and honestly, I don't ever plan to. Slide a mint Beatles/Pink Floyd/Elvis/Johnny Cash album from its holy shroud, lovingly sacrifice it to the very latest in retro stereo technology, and watch as my eyes glaze over and iPod earbuds mysteriously snake their way up to my ears to filter out the ho-hum with some nice Chevelle or Linkin Park. No, I am not joking.
No, really, I am not joking. You have been warned.
I encountered Bloc Party leaning against a pillar in an Urban Outfitters, waiting for two female friends to take the hint that I lack the Gay Gene codon for "takes pleasure in shopping." I liked the noises I was hearing over the PA through the static of conversation, rustling clothes-hangers, and cash register rings. I liked the noises a lot. As we finally made it past the rows of pre-faded t-shirts with ironic ethnic slogans to the counter, I grabbed a copy of the album from the "Now Playing" rack and traded a couple more bytes in my checking account for it than I was quite comfortable with.
This is a round-about way of saying that I came upon this extremelysuperüberhyped critic's darling in a state of total naïveté. I mean that in both the positive and the negative sense. Take your pick.
This is a round-about way of saying that Bloc Party is the best fucking band I have ever heard.
You can sort Bloc Party into dance rock, or you can sort them into post-punk, depending on which row of the miles-long list of influences you fancy better. Imagine a weïrd witches' cauldron stewing up Franz Ferdinand, Gang of Four, The Killers, Interpol, The Cure...
Does it annoy you when reviewers play Dr. Frankenstein and raid the graves of various Bands You Should Have Heard Of to assemble a simulacron of the music they're actually reviewing? Well, if it does not, my apologies. I do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of the last four decades of rock, so such well-meaning monsters send me fleeing with the zeal of a particularly jumpy peasant.
Anyway, Bloc Party themselves are rather straight forward about the matter. Vocalist Kele Okereke, bass player Gordon Moakes, guitarist Russell Lissak, and drummer Matt Tong put it thus:
Bloc Party is an autonomous unit of un-extraordinary kids reared on pop culture between the years of 1976 and the present day. Like many such kids, between them they eventually concluded that their own attempts to imitate what had informed them could be construed as a worthy variation on the many forms that preceded. They do everything that's required to conform to the currently received ideas of what a band is: ostensibly to play instruments at the same time, but also have a title for the work created.
This is the sort of carefully-crafted blandness I want more of in trendy rock. Because, the thing is, Bloc Party puts their thriftiness to good use. They've invested every bit of bluster and bravado into their music. The hefty returns are yours to enjoy.
Henceforth should follow a list of auteurs and musicians that figured in the formative minds of the four as they went about their work. But to do as much seems churlish in an already self-referential world. Suffice to say there would be no band without the efforts of guitar bands formed in British and American towns in the 70s, 80s and 90s, aswell as visionary writers and artists of various kinds whose work has informed the world and culture itself as it stands. The precise names are as good as any you can come up with, in fact probably much, much better.
For an emerging band, Bloc Party is remarkably competent at the tried-and-true formulas. Check speedometer-breaking rocker, check crooning slow dance, check crooning slow-dance that builds to a fast-paced climax
These are conveniently-packaged, 100% pure pop-rock blocks of heroin right here. These are the moments of aural bliss I expect no more than once or twice an album from most bands crammed together into a continuous 53.9 minutes. These are the guys for whom I have been saving up every fucking superlative at my disposal.
"Like Eating Glass", the opener to Bloc Party's first album Silent Alarm—the write-up for which features a churlish review miffed that the band dares to touch the same ground Interpol stands on—, rides in on the back of wailing speaker feedback and a jacked-up drumline so blistering I would've sworn it was the work of a well-tempered synthesizer until I saw Tong himself flail his arms with frightening precision at a concert in Chicago. "Tulips" injects more melancholy romance into Okereke's vocal cords than I think may be healthy for him. The coordination of "She's Hearing Voices," so perfect it's menacing, gets broken by a solo from Lissak that counts as the most jaw-breaking thirty seconds I've ever experienced on an album's first-time listen. And somehow, wherever, whenever he's playing, Moakes beats the eternal bassist curse of being essential but completely unnoticed and makes sure you're aware that he also belongs among these Wunderkinder.
It helps that I find their lyrics resonate with me and the age I'm living in much the same way I suppose John Lennon's "Imagine" must have resonated with my nigh fourty-year elders. I prefer the cover by A Perfect Circle, to be honest. I stand proudly as a youngster who doesn't get Hippy, Disco, New Wave, or Grunge. But this stuff, I get. Okereke doesn't so much sing as chant, taking the charismatic voice of a megaphone wielding protestor indoors and on-key. Bloc Party has its European political credentials all in order, with barely-veiled stabs at inflated American ego. If you're unimpressed with the No-Blood-For-Oil crowd, your initial distrust of a band whose name features a French word with socialist connotations does not lead you wrong. On the whole though, current events commentary remains tasteful and restrained, so let's get to the meat of the matter.
Bloc Party tells the story of an age approaching the event horizon of total neurosis. Bloc Party sings for all of us here popping over-the-counter psychiatric medications and herbal remedies, stumbling through a haze of native urbanite angst, talking to spirits through electromagnetic spectra and snaking fiberoptics, dodging death as collateral damage in the Culture War, tired of nihilism, too media savvy for optimism. Their verdict? Something glorious is about to happen. A reckoning.
I will take one ticket please to whatever you have to say please keep talking.
If you can avoid breaking out in hives at murmurs of "This year's Franz Ferdinand" and don't mind worn rock-leitmotifs dressed up in stylish indie garb, Bloc Party's worth a try...
Bloc Party is made up of a sincere, enthusiastic gang of Brits who know how to play intruments, know what's been done with these instruments before, and know how to build on the legacy. They're as astounding live as they are in the recording studio, they sound good whether burdened with sketchy garage-band recording equipment or filtered through the exquisite lens of the production-industrial complex. Here's the critical breakdown, the point at which I stop doing stupid tricks with words to distract you into accepting my opinion:
I do not know music very well, but I revel in it nonetheless. Bloc Party is a band I really enjoy. I think you will too. I hope you'll trust me.