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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bloc Party: Silent Alarm


1) Like Eating Glass; 2) Helicopter; 3) Positive Tension; 4) Banquet; 5) Blue Light; 6) She's Hearing Voices; 7) This Modern Love; 8) Pioneers; 9) Price Of Gas; 10) So Here We Are; 11) Luno; 12) Plans; 13) Compliments.

Here is another band whose recent status as «critical darlings» has pissed off so many people that, behind the endless discussions on the nature of overratedness, one almost forgets to talk about the nature of Bloc Party. Here are the bare facts. Bloc Party is an Essex-based rock band, formed from 1999 to 2003 by a bunch of college students/dropouts of highly mixed origin (lead guitarist and bass players are Brits, lead singer and rhythm player Kele Okereke is of Igbo descent, drum­mer Matt Tong is Malaysian — a melting pot paradise) and highly developed intellect. The band's first recordings provoked interest on the part of figures like Franz Ferdinand, and their first album became a smash success in the UK, making them hip-hip-hip for most of 2005, all the way up to their being blown away as the next best hip-hip-hip thing by the Arctic Monkeys next year.

It goes without saying that, these days, three guys with guitars and one guy with drums cannot become a smash success if they do not make strange new tricks with these things, or, as it more frequently turns out, if they do not give out the popular impression that they are making strange new tricks with these things. On the general scale, what they give out is a post-punk type sound, songs that are simple and complex at the same time, combining fast three-chord riffs in so many different ways that they start sounding like multi-note riffs, not to mention fluent, impressive in­terplay between the two guitarists that certainly took quite a bit of sweat to orchestrate. On the more particular scales, they occasionally bring in small bits of electronic sound that they also in­herited from their Eighties' childhood, and melodies that are fairly hard to crack. Either they do not really know how to write them, or I do not really know how to read them.

I do not want to reduce these guys to the sum of their influences, which include quite a few res­pectable outfits from around 1978 to around 1999. People have done that — successfully — and, as usual, it has led to some dismissing them as talentless copycats and others to endorsing them as bona fide inheritors. For me, the one impressive thing about this band is the playing. Even if the melodies as such usually do not work, all four of these guys sound like seasoned pros. Particular kudos goes to drummer Matt Tong, whose inventive fills and overall precision level I would im­pressionistically rate among the finest I'd heard from the 21st century; but the rest of the guys are no slouches, either — phenomenal coordination and discipline, even when it comes to relatively difficult passages. The entire album went very smooth with me for that reason alone.

The weakest spot is arguably Kele Okereke's singing. He certainly can sing, and he is expressive enough, but a voice is a voice: you can pour as much fiery spirit in your guitar playing as your body contains, but the vocal tract is a far less reliable mediator, and it always sounds like he is seriously constrained by it — wants to give out a hundred percent but only comes out with fifty, so to speak. As a result, most of the time it sounds like he's pitifully whining about life rather than apocalyptically threatening about it, and pitiful whining just doesn't sit too well with the musical moods they create. Sometimes I catch myself thinking that, as a modestly preservable piece of art, Silent Alarm might have worked better as a completely instrumental album.

Like I said, the songs aren't catchy; in fact, even as I am giving it a fourth and fifth listen, all of them are instantaneously forgettable on their own. What could you ask, after all, from an album based on generic pop-punk riffs, not a single one of which stays around for too long at that? An album whose chorus lines do not rhyme and are usually hard to separate from verse melodies? An album on which every second song plays at the exact same tempo, and almost every first song has the exact same arrangement? With the hit singles completely interchangeable with the LP-only tracks? Nothing.

What does the album aim for as a whole? Hard to say. It is clear that these guys are being serious; tired of endless cynicism and post-modern intellectualism like so many of their peers, they create this dreary grey landscape against which they stand, complaining and complaining and complai­ning about every aspect of life. Just look at this: (1) "It's so cold in this house, like drinking poison, like eating glass"; (2) "Are you hoping for a miracle? Some things will never be dif­ferent"; (3) "You're just as boring as everyone else, nothing ever happens"; (4) "Heaven's never enough, we will never be fooled"; (5) "You didn't even notice when the sky turned blue"; (6) "I'm tearing down posters, I was never ever alive"; (7) "This modern love breaks me, this modern love wastes me"; (8) "We promised the world we'd tame it, what were we hoping for?"; (9) "Nothing ever comes for me, the ghosts are here, red white and blue"; (10) "I really tried to do what you wanted, it all went wrong again"; (11) "You've been lying to me, you deserve it"; (12) "Stop being so laissez-faire, we're all scared of the future"; (13) "We sit and we sigh and nothing gets done... what are we coming to, what are we gonna do?" Yep, that's all of the songs in a nutshell. Seems like there's more depression inside of Kele than in all the Igbo people combined.

I would not buy this attitude without a second thought. It is nice to think of it as a good antidote not just for MTV-type cultures, but also for the animalistic hedonism of the hipster club ones, but it does not always seem like the band is speaking with its own voice; their desire to be heard is obviously sincere, but what they say is such goddamn old news that it would have taken more than Kele Okereke's whiny delivery and the combined professionalism of his band to make it work in a new way. A decade from now, Silent Alarm will be a fascinating culturological study for those interested in the average intelligent mindset of a typical mid-noughties' youth from the EU; but in the meantime, it will be inevitably washed away by a couple dozen «no better, no wor­se» albums exploring more relevant musical trends and speaking more actual lyrical jargons.

But lingering still in my memory is the superb musicianship, for which alone thumbs up are guaran­teed. If you find a karaoke version of the record lying around, let me know.

Check "Silent Alarm" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Silent Alarm" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. Bloc Party is one of those bands that our 'alternative presses' love to hype just because they are moderately interesting, then replaced by someone else in the next 6 months.

    I still like Silent Alarm (and the remix album), but their discography is only going to be downhill from here on.