REVIEW: BLOC PARTY – FOUR (2012)
Did Kele leave? Are you guys still a band? Will the sound continue shifting towards more electronic? Less? Do you still play guitars? Bloc Party triumphantly answers all these questions and more with Four, their fourth album and first in four years. And it, for the time being, shuts everyone up. It’s the band’s turn to musically speak and they do so in a commanding and faith-renewing fashion. Four could have easily been a faded effort from a rumor-entangled band coming off of a prolonged hiatus; instead, it’s some of Bloc Party’s best guitar rock in years. They’re back. No, really, they’re back.
Four bolts out of the blocks with everything it needed to be—fresh, frantic and engaging. Lead tracks “So He Begins to Lie” and “3×3” are guitar-driven, drum-heavy, and infectious. Play the first two tracks and you’ll catch yourself listening to the entire album through. “So He Begins to Lie” is a funk-fest melody intercut with a glass-shattering hook and spun together with a brilliant showcase of drumming by Matt Tong. “3×3” is loud, quick and panicky; frontman Kele Okereke whispers haunting vocals, only then to flash his range on the flailing chorus. The result is a sound channeling a bit of Mars Volta, which may directly or indirectly be indicative of producer Alex Newport, who had previously worked with Mars Volta on their EP Tremulant.
Four’s softer songs don’t exactly match the endearing qualities of past ballad favorites such as “This Modern Love” and “Blue Light,” but they do hold up on their own. “Real Talk” starts off with a repeating funk beat but unfolds into a powerful arching chorus. “I’ve lived in every town but here is where I find home,” Okereke sings on “Real Talk,” which along with “Truth,” seems to be the only love focused tracks on the album. “Day Four” is another beautiful ballad that builds around fancy guitar work and a soothing violin. Lyrically, much of Four seems to center on loneliness, troubled thoughts, and an overwhelming sense of being lost. None of these are all that unheard of themes for Bloc Party, but past albums have shown more prominent flickers of optimism. Even Four’s “Healing” seems underlined with despair. “V.A.L.I.S.” however, does offer some upbeat, dance relief to the album, and even some clapping.
Four is very reminiscent of Bloc Party’s self-titled debut EP that first sparked them on to the scene back in 2004. The band has returned in full force to that initial raw sound, putting the focus back on straight-up vocals, guitars and drums. Since the tremendous critical and mainstream success of 2005’s Silent Alarm, Bloc Party has increasingly incorporated more electronics into their music. And for the most part, it worked. A Weekend in the City and Intimacy were well-crafted follow-ups that beautifully combined looping, synths, and other electronic facets into the Bloc Party arsenal. Single “Flux” is actually a terrific, all-out, electronic-heavy dance party from that era. However, even with success in electronic exploration, it’s refreshing to see Bloc Party reincorporate the more traditional guitar rock sounds of their earlier days.
Even with the guitar work being welcomed and excellent on most tracks, the focus does seem to breakdown at times. Both “Coliseum” and “We Are Not Good People” skip away from melody and instead peel into almost metal worthy guitar arrangements that will likely alienate some longtime Bloc Party fans. “Kettling” is another harder rock song but balances better with Tong’s drums and Okereke’s vocals and includes a pretty terrific, Slash-esque guitar solo from axman Russell Lissack.
I’ve seen Bloc Party play live only once, at Lollapalooza in 2008. I remember beforehand being really excited for their set. I adored Silent Alarm, and had a number of favorites off of A Weekend in the City. However, when the band went on, something was lacking. I wasn’t sure if it was my distance from the stage, sound issues, or favorite songs that weren’t played, but the performance came off as disengaging and uninspired. Since then, I haven’t been all that excited about anything Bloc Party—until I heard Four. No it’s not perfect, but it’s also nothing I was expecting. I thought this was going to be a settling, last-ditch effort from the four-piece. But it’s not; it’s actually everything but. It’s an energetic reaffirmation that Bloc Party is not only still a band, but dare I say, a band with potentially some of their best music still ahead of them.