February 15, 2007

Sophomore Slumps Don’t Bloc Their Party

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New Musical Express loves loves LOVES Bloc Party. NME, in fact, could not have written a better plot for the quartet’s formation, since dreadlocked frontman Kele Okereke found their bassist through an advertisement in the newsprint magazine. Initially, Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack decided to form the band after meeting at the Reading Festival, childhood classmates that found each other again at one of England’s most famous rock extravaganzas. And not only did the band form in two of the icons of British music culture, but none other than the Scottish rockers Franz Ferdinand discovered the quartet after Okereke somehow shoved his demo into the hands of lead singer Alex Kapranos’ hands. That’s not a storybook romance; that’s an NME headline.

For their first LP, this gang of four modeled themselves after the Gang of Four of the English post-punk music revolution of the late 1970’s, as opposed to the Gang of Four of the Chinese Communist Cultural Revolution (of the late 1970’s.) It should be noted that Okereke claims he’d never heard of Gang of Four until after the Bloc Party released Silent Alarm … yeah, right. After listening to Entertainment! by the pre-New Wave Leeds-based rockers, there’s no denying Bloc Party’s influences. But Okereke can set up a hut next to that river in Egypt if he so pleases.

A Weekend in the City starts off with Okereke’s solo howling and then the drums thwack their signal that the rest of the band has arrived. Backup vocals during verses mark “Song for Clay (Disappear Here)” as a slight departure from Silent Alarm, and the slightly-offbeat rhythms achieve the jarring effect this near-aria requires before the melodic break in which Okereke affronts East London. He cries, “Because East London is a vampire/it sucks the joy right out of me/How we long for corruption in these golden years.” That’s a pretty outrageous claim, unless the subsequent tracks can back it up.

Good thing, then, that “Hunting for Witches” is up next. The startling intro of spliced sound clips launch the tune before a drum machine thumps its way in, then the schizophrenic guitars, and finally Okereke’s vocals infiltrate the clamor. The band has recorded his vocals so they disorient you when they jump through your headphones stereophonically. Like the opening track, this one likens London to a supernatural scene, this time taking a page right out of The Crucible in its comparison of terrorist scares to witch-hunting. Even the acronym form of AWITC nearly spells out “a witch.”

Because of Okereke’s distinct voice and vocal styling, it would be hard for the casual Bloc Party fan to hear a lot of distinctions in A Weekend in the City and Silent Alarm. The musical experimentation has indeed evolved on this one, but not completely throwing away the formula for their sound, instead expanding it from just post-punk. Though some of the lyrical content of AWITC is political, Silent Alarm presented cuts like “Price of Gas” that could only be described as biased and barely disguised as such. The band aims for this album to describe the meaning, or lack thereof, of a yuppie existence in London in the midst of major world events that should provoke more than apathy, but still don’t.

“Uniform” slows the pace of the album in a way that the more downtempo tracks on Silent Alarm did not. Never before was there such a pervasive echo of despair and hopelessness in a Bloc Party song. Two-and-a-half minutes in, Matt Tong’s lung-collapsingly forceful drums light up the tempo again, but the new speed amplifies the urgency instead of hope. The refrain “I am a martyr, I just need a motive” takes the song to its zenith of the word “uniform” and then the song slides back down to its melancholy start, a musical depiction of the uselessness of trying.

The next track up, “On,” wants to sound optimistic and indeed includes the word “hopeful” in its chorus, but the rest of the lyrics and background sonic qualities quietly disparage the outward goal of the song. The song sounds a bit like Muse’s daring summer single “Knights of Cydonia,” but only marginally with the galloping guitar riffs.

For their first UK single, the Bloc-ers chose “The Prayer,” but that uncharismatic track could learn a thing or two from “I Still Remember,” which they anointed first U.S. single. This one reverberates with poppy keyboard-like guitars and, though it starts off lofty, it crescendos even higher. It is probably the most accessible track on the whole record, everyone should give this a listen. The “easy” listening continues into the penultimate track, “Sunday,” but as soon as it arrives, its gone again for “SRXT” to haunt the remainder of AWITC.

If Bloc Party’s first album never really grew on you with its spare instrumentation and unapologetic disregard for melody on 75 percent of Silent Alarm, A Weekend in the City may not seep its way into your system. AWITC is tough and biting. It won’t infect you but it might saw off one of your arms and beat you with it. Pop is not in the sights of the band, but high musical quality and the consistency of message are high priorities. Bloc Party fans should be pleased, but newcomers ought to try out Silent Alarm before being intimidated by this record.