by Justin Valmassoi
Pretty much everyone who listens to music these days at least knows the name Bloc Party. Pitchforked into the stratosphere on the strength of their meticulously crafted debut, Silent Alarm, and further kept aloft by waves of hype from both sides of the pond, the British four-piece were impossible to avoid in 2005. That first record was an ambitious, tight studio album with an impeccable rhythm section holding together the waves of angular post-punk guitar and frontman Kele Okereke’s more-plaintive-Damon-Albarn vocals. Producer Paul Epworth deserves much of the credit for crafting Bloc Party’s pristine, earnest sound. From car speakers to headphones to bar jukeboxes, the band was everywhere at once, on some U2 shit for people who are too cool for U2. Hips shook. Fists pumped.
2007 saw the release of Weekend In The City, the sophomore attempt from England’s most hyped export. Engaging the services of rock producer extraordinaire Garrett “Jacknife” Lee they angled for a more polished sound with bigger hooks and bigger ambitions. Electronic flourishes built to avalanches of guitar. Arenas were rocked.
Some fans wanted a return to form, others embraced the step forward. Bloc Party seemed one of the few bands so clearly yearning for monstrous floodlights and festival-sized attendance still strangely embraced by the usually standoffish, less-is-more indie crowd.
Laying low for almost two years, they returned in a flash with an almost overnight and unannounced rush-release of last year’s Intimacy. Instead of choosing one of their previous recording engineers, Bloc Party instead split engineering duties between the two. Jacknife Lee’s Chemical Brothers biting is all over the thumping, air raid siren opener ‘Ares’ followed almost immediately by the chopped, looped and propulsive mess of lead-single ‘Mercury’. “People always think of us as a rock band,” says frontman Kele Orereke, “but -and I’ve said this from the start- that’s not really where I see us. That’s not what inspires me. I’ve been listening to the same things I’ve always listened to: Dizzee rascal, Missy Elliott, DJ Shadow, Prefuse 73, R&B. It’s just that I think we’ve become more confident about what it is we’re about.”
Certainly, it seems from the opening tracks that the band is attempting to distance themselves musically from their previous work while maintaining trace elements. There are more electronics, more … everything, really. Once past the opening salvo, Epworth’s fingerprints become more apparent and the record does in fact resemble something crafted by the same band that made Silent Alarm. It’s both an amalgamation of the previous records and an extension, for better or worse. “We felt we had unfinished business with both Garrett and Paul,” says Okereke.
When we had a chance to speak with drummer Matt Tong during a recent tour stop in Ontario, a brief chat shed some light on the changes the band has undergone and where they might be headed.
“We’re normally quite restless, I think, and keen to use the opportunity we have as paid recording musicians to explore what it is we can achieve. I think we kind of feel it’s our duty since we’ve been lucky enough to find ourselves in this position. We’ve always felt that way. Even from the outset we did say to ourselves it’s important not to keep repeating what it is we do. I suppose it’s kind of a hybrid of the first and second [records] with some extra electronic bits bolted on for good measure.”
When asked why the band hadn’t simply abandoned their initial sound if Dizzee Rascal or Missy Elliott were more immediate influences, Tong replied that “Obviously no band has been able to fully escape signature aspects of their sound. It can be quite difficult to be truly iconoclastic when it comes to challenging what it is you’re known for. We try to do that, regardless.”
For a drummer, of course, a shift to a more synthetic rhythm section might be seen as a threat but Tong remains optimistic. “I think my natural instinct is to not want to be manipulated with as a musician but I certainly accept the whole thing this band is about and I have learned something from having the more electronic aspect incorporated into what I do as a drummer. I don’t think I would have been as into it four or five years ago but I feel like I’ve grown up a bit and I’m a lot more comfortable with that sort of thing now.”
As a headphone record, Intimacy is less of a success as its forebears. It is a brash album, loud and, amusingly enough, decidedly not intimate. Many of the more abrasive studio manipulations can be offputting, crafted more for club speakers or, lucky for you, the beefy soundsystem at the Riviera, where Bloc Party is playing on March 28th.
For those who lost interest after Silent Alarm Tong offers a glimmer of hope for the future. “I think our immediate plan is to take a break after this tour. [After that] preliminary discussions indicate a return to a more traditional format in terms of us being in a room together writing songs.”
A break. Certainly no one can fault them for that. For a band that debuted less than five years ago they’ve certainly been busy. The Aragon Ballroom show is apparently the last they’ll be seen for a while, so if you haven’t shown any love to Bloc Party lately, Saturday might be your last chance for the foreseeable future.
Bloc Party plays the Riviera (4746 N. Racine) on March 28th, 2009.