More about: Bloc Party
“What an amazing choice!” proclaims Radio 1 DJ Greg James following the request of Bloc Party’s classic hit ‘Helicopter’ by one of his Breakfast Show listeners. It’s the Tuesday prior to their new album release and the play of the pulsating 2004 anthem on BBC’s youth mainstream music morning radio show feels like a fitting reminder of the London band’s decade-and-a-half-ago star appeal. This would be a draw that would soon evade them in the years following.
It can be easy to forget now, but Bloc Party were one of the main players in the fruitful ‘00s indie rock scene, their debut going down as one of the most iconic records of that era. The tunes from Silent Alarm soundtracked night outs up and down the UK, and even featured prominently on American smash TV series The O.C. However, over their next couple of records, they either fell far short of matching the quality of their first (2007’s A Weekend In The City) or went down underappreciated due to focusing on a more leftfield approach (2008’s Intimacy). Despite ploughing out radio-friendly hits ‘Flux’ and ‘Mercury’, the late ‘00s ultimately saw them alienate a large portion of their existing fanbase. The guitars anthems were gradually being ditched for electro-infused dancefloor fillers and not everyone was on board with that.
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By the mid-2010s, further alarm bells rang out when original members Matt Tong (drums) and Gordon Moakes (bass) departed the band and — together with the launch of Kele Okereke’s successful solo career — it would’ve been little surprise had they called it a day there and then. Despite the arrival of Justin Harris (bass) and Louise Bartle (drums) being met with a certain fanfare, it still wasn’t enough to save the banal criticisms of 2016’s Hymns. It would never have been fair to completely write off the new line-up, so where at first they didn’t succeed, they’ve been given the opportunity to try, try again. Early fans of the band will be happy they did.
Six years is a long period to reflect between albums and such time has clearly been a healer. Bloc Party have offered us their most focused and coherent record in years. With all four members now contributing to the band’s sound, there’s a welcomed freshness and energy to reinvigorate any setting in staleness. “It was fun writing,” admits Kele, “…and seeing what they (Louise and Justin) were capable of seeing; the new shapes and new sounds they could make”.
Six albums in and almost two decades leading the band, frontman Kele Okereke was keen to take the listener on a “journey” on new album Alpha Games. Set to a backdrop of political upheaval, scandal and coronavirus frustrations, their latest has been several years in the making — a new energised focus inspired by their 2018/19 Silent Alarm anniversary tour.
Much of the success comes from the simmering darkness that runs throughout Alpha Games. Opener ‘Day Drinker’ boldly tells the tale of a brother’s inebriated desperation and suspicion, the final minute breaking down into a fantastic heavier riffed finale and it’s quickly followed by the ferocious swagger of first previous single ‘Traps’. ‘The Girls Are Fighting’ is late-night, after-midnight sleaze personified (“there’s blood on the dance floor, extensions on the bar / I blame the Jagermeister and vodka lemonade”), an ominous and uneasy edge allowing for a particular mid-point album highlight.
‘Callum Is A Snake’ meanders between quirky and lyrical cringe (“I had a lot of time for you / but now you’ve got me in the street looking like a MUG / And that’s not the look I’m going for”). Once you get over the latter, it’s a snappy two-minute slice of indie pop fun. ‘Sex Magik’ has them at their most sexy and tender, the repeated refrain of “earth, earth, air, air, fire, fire, water, water” adding a luscious richness to the song.
Closer ‘The Peace Offering’ is a dense and thoughtful end, full of acceptance and vindication, a man coming to question and compromise his cynicism. With Kele’s spoken vocal style channelling that of Dry Cleaning’s Florence Shaw, the song reaches a breath-taking, claustrophobic demise that’ll have you enthralled until its dying seconds.
Speaking about the frustrations of making their sixth studio album, Kele would admit that “there were lots of points during the making of this record where we weren’t sure if it was going to get made at all”. Such feelings of cynicism and anger eek out throughout this record, the energetic anguish providing the band a new lease of life.
Alpha Games is an excellent return, far more accessible and focused than many of their previous efforts. Bloc Party are simply bolder and punchier than ever, a band to be taken as a serious force again. And who doesn’t love a good redemption story?
Alpha Games arrives 29 April via Infectious/BMG.
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More about: Bloc Party