As Bloc Party stand on the precipice of releasing their fifth album Hymns, we realise the ten-year anniversary of their debut Silent Alarm has quietly passed us by, and it’s time to reflect on what they left behind and where they stand now. It certainly doesn’t seem that long ago that songs like Helicopter were in our headphones, mostly because we’re still listening to them. At live shows the reception to tracks like Banquet still blow the roof off. I know because I was at the Enmore Theatre last week. In fact, it’s almost hard to believe two positively brilliant songs could exist on the same album, but that tells you something about Silent Alarm.
With Silent Alarm, Bloc Party burst onto the scene like some kind of indie guitar-rock superheroes, refreshing and revitalising the genre and establishing themselves as one of the most interesting bands of the millennium. How does it stack up a decade down the track?
Bloc Party made a big splash in what was already a very competitive pool at the time. Other UK rockers making their mark at the time included: Franz Ferdinand (who had scored a hottest 100 win in 2004 with the swaggering Take Me Out), Maximo Park (who were all heart), Arctic Monkeys (who were as cool and edgy as ice), and the Kaiser Chiefs (who could be fun and political at the same time). Not to mention the overbearing influence of Interpol. Over the following few years all these bands would achieve worldwide acclaim. So one would think it very difficult for Kele Okereke and the gang to stand out amongst such already esteemed company. Wrong, they cut through the noise with utter precision to produce one of the tightest, well balanced rock albums you’re ever likely to hear. It was a supremely audacious debut and that’s a salient point; it was their first offering and upon re-listening sits as one of the best records of the past decade.
Silent Alarm was the kind of album where every song wants to be as good as the lead singles, and it more or less achieves it. It held the sound of a rock band that were different to everyone else. Bloc Party offered a refreshing sound that their contemporaries couldn’t match, because while they were making a rock album, they were heavily influenced by house, club, and disco music, which allowed them to find sweeter grooves and rhythm than most other alternative acts.
For all the other band’s strengths, Bloc Party were just that little bit more sophisticated and intelligent. The lyrics on the album speak volumes for the bands understated ability to make substantial remarks without being too blunt. They talk cryptically about politics, war and the state of the world and at other times you sense Kele unearthing incredibly personal moments but you can’t quite nail down what he’s saying. It makes for a much more interesting listen than your average rock album.
From the very first note of Like Eating Glass, the album is driven by a great urgency to be heard, like the band knew they had something great and couldn’t wait for people to hear it. The sheer screwed tight, battened up, sealed shut feeling of those guitars, bass, and drums working together is blissful. You can’t get any cleaner than Bloc Party are on this album. Yet it still manages to prickle, flicker and jump with an energy that speaks of attitude, but not anger. Exiting the shouting end of Like Eating Glass to enter the ferocious double guitar onslaught of Helicopter is an experience in itself. If there’s a better first twenty seconds of a song out there, please let me know.
By the time Positive Tension comes around everything feels as taut as it could ever get. The band decide to ease back a little with a groovier beat and a cheekier delivery from Kele. However, the chorus soon has him yelling out “something glorious is about to happen!” He was right because the song heats up with some more spectacular guitar work from Russel Lissack and a tremendous crescendo before we get to Banquet.
Blowing through the first half of this album could almost be identical to a greatest hits album if they ever release one. With Banquet there’s a natural inclination to start dancing. It’s stiff and addictive with a chorus that fans have always used to drown out the band as they sing along. At this stage of the album it’s obvious that Bloc Party are craftsmen. Their musicianship is immaculate and their songwriting superior. Every bridge, hook, refrain, verse, and chorus just works taking every song to a higher level than you first think it will reach. It sounds like they planned everything to the letter, and in retrospect we know there were many other songs they had up their sleeve but left off the initial album release, not least of which was Hottest 100 hit Two More Years.
In addition, Okereke has an intriguing and affecting voice. He manages to trail off his sentences with a sense of desperation that makes you want to sing with him but he’s almost impossible to replicate because his style is so unique. Whether he’s shouting or crooning there’s always something in it to latch onto. He certainly got better at ballads after this album but that’s not to say Blue Light or So Here We Are are weak. On the contrary, they are charming and winsome but with this type of song he surpasses himself on A Weekend in the City and Intimacy.
Throughout the runtime Silent Alarm shakes its hips now and then, and it whispers here and there, but it always seems to come back to tight and bouncy. It’s certainly a great example of what was to come in their following albums; a lot of diversity and no fear of experimenting. The melodic tenderness of This Modern Love probably provides the best path toward their follow-up A Weekend in The City. Kele starts to open up about himself, admitting “I get tongue tied” (YouTube some interviews). Some of the pain he displays here really comes to the fore on their next album.
It’s very hard to find a problem with Silent Alarm. She’s Hearing Voices, The Pioneers, and Luno are also fantastic, displaying the same kind of delicious rock we heard at the start, but if there is one let-down it would be Price of Gasoline. Actually it’s by far the weakest offering despite a rousing chorus that almost resurrects it. However, the song is too cliché and gimmicky with some lyrical styles that sound out of place in relation to the rest of the album and handclapping that comes off as cheesy.
Finishing off the album is the hidden gem Plans, especially if you check out the acoustic version, and the depressingly relatable Compliments. Kele sounds increasingly tired as he sings “We sit and we sigh and nothing gets done, so right, so clued-up we just get old. And all the while, been torn asunder, nicotine and bacteria.” The song fades away like this might be the first and last we ever hear of Bloc Party and what a stark image they left us with.
So how does Silent Alarm stack up now and where do Bloc Party stand heading into the release of Hymns? It’s probably their best album but only because it is damn near perfect. A Weekend In The City was nearly as outstanding with a stronger narrative and more piercing emotional depth with songs like Waiting for the 7.18 and SRXT, but it lacked the frantic energy of its predecessor. Intimacy saw them experiment a bit more with electronic sounds but it still contained the absolutely beautiful Biko and Signs as well as the ferocious Talons and the effortlessly tight Ion Square.
With Four they returned with a heavier and more complicated rock sound just as the world was getting buried by synth-pop. Bloc Party have always somehow delivered exactly what their fans needed and they have managed to maintain relevancy when counterparts such as Maximo Park and Kaiser Chiefs have lost their way. We can expect Hymns to be just as diverse as their other work, despite needing to replace drummer Matt Tong and bassist Gordon Moakes. Having heard some of it already it’s safe to assume it will be pretty, it will be rocky, it will have range and depth. It will be Bloc Party.