“Dust off the Axe, Russell.” On May 31st of this year, Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke took to the internet. He began by apologizing for two not-very-funny jokes that had come in the months since Christmas 2011. One had suggested that he was booted from the band, and another suggested that an aging ex-Pearl Jam drummer had replaced mainstay Matt Tong. Neither of these hoax attempts were true – nor were they necessary. After the tour supporting their last album, 2008’s Intimacy, Bloc Party found themselves at a creative standstill. Okereke thought the timing was right to “make a record that excites people in the clubs like M.I.A.’s XR2,” as he put it. With a solo album and a dubstep EP behind him, Okereke explained that Bloc Party were indeed back together and had, in fact, just wrapped up recording their best record to date at Stratosphere Sound Studios in Manhattan.
Bloc Party has a strong following comprised of two types of fans: there are fans that embrace their constant evolution and fans that want them to record Silent Alarm over and over and over again. After listening to Four – an album Okereke says got its title not because it was the band‘s fourth album, but rather because it was a raw sound of four guys playing in room together – this record will both satisfy fans from both camps, and alienate some fans from both camps. Interested in always evolving, Bloc Party ditched both of their former producers, Jackknife Lee and Paul Epworth, and recruited producer Alex Newport of Mars Volta fame. Newport suggested that Bloc Party make a record the old-fashioned way: no ProTools, no layering, no over-synthesized effects. The outcome is a record that, at times, rocks harder than anything that the band has ever done.
The lead single, “Octopus,” finds the band renewed and revitalized. It’s energetic, aggressive, and incredibly inventive. The guitar recalls one of guitarist Russell Lissack’s heroes, Graham Coxon of Blur (see “On Your Own” from Blur’s 1997 eponymous album). With that said, “Octopus” is really no indication of what was to come. Apart from this single and a similarly styled track called “Team A,” you cannot hear the influences that had littered their first three albums (Suede, The Cure, Blur, and The Smiths). Instead, you get the sense that Kele has the danceclub electronics completely out of his system and that he’s given Russell the key to the closet where he had his guitar locked up for more than four years. In fact, their last single before the hiatus, “One More Chance,” now sounds like a different band.
The album showcases Russell’s guitar – and an influence that may remind one of Deftones’ White Pony. Matt Tong’s explosive drumming returns to the fore. Interestingly, Kele has dumbed down his lyrics quite a bit for this record in a purposeful way, similar to what his idol Brett Anderson did when writing Suede’s 1996 album Coming Up. Along with less meaningful, less heartbreaking and personal lyrical content, many songs show a more subdued vocal. That works here because this record is obviously not about the vocal, but rather about a rock guitar that, in parts, may shock Bloc Party’s fan base.
But make no mistake: this does not sound anything like Silent Alarm. If you were hoping to bounce along to a “Helicopter” sound-alike, you’re not going to get that. Instead, you get songs like “Kettling,” their hardest rocking track to date. It rocks so hard, it almost cannot even be classified as alternative rock – though it does seem to have a structure very similar to “Bulls on Parade” from Rage Against the Machine. This is one the record’s standout tracks that finds Okereke aggressively belting out, “We smash the window! Popo don’t fuck around!” Other glimpses of rock guitar can be found on the tracks “Coliseum” and “We Are Not Good People.” While you do get glimpses of A Weekend In the City-era Bloc Party on tracks like “Day Four” and “Truth,” and unfortunately get some filler on the record’s most personal track “Real Talk,” this album, while often showcasing varying styles, is cohesive and reiterates Bloc Party’s legacy of constant evolution. But instead of defining evolution as pretentious, oft-unlistenable electronic noise (ahem, King of Limbs), they define it as showing the world they can often rock as hard as anyone – and at times even harder than Silent Alarm. It’s a very strong return effort. Is it Bloc Party’s best record? I’m not quite ready to give it such a crown just yet, especially with Silent Alarm in their back catalogue, but I will confirm this: I’ve scanned Four‘s deluxe edition from front-to-back seventeen times now, and curiously, Kele never says the word “cruel” once.
4 out of 5