SOUND THE ALARM After a brief hiatus, Bloc Party have once again asserted themselves as one of the UK's finest rock bands.
When Bloc Party announced in 2009 that they were taking a break, the band's future was a big question mark. In fact, at the time, drummer Matt Tong told the BBC, "Hopefully, if we do reconvene at some point in the future, we'll be refreshed and have so many ideas to bring to what it is we do." The group's reformation prospects seemed even dimmer when all four members subsequently scattered to disparate side projects — including touring with Ash (guitarist Russell Lissack), electronic-driven solo releases (frontman Kele Okereke), and a bracing post-hardcore band (bassist Gordon Moakes's Young Legionnaire).
But as it turns out, time away from Bloc Party was just what the quartet needed to revive their passion. That's immediately obvious from the guitars-forward Four (Frenchkiss), which is possibly the band's best record: abrasive but meticulous, it makes room for post-punk hammering (the Fugazi-like "Kettling"), thrashing punk ("We Are Not Good People"), chattering math rock ("Octopus"), nimble dance rock ("V.A.L.I.S.") and even a dreamy Britpop ballad ("The Healing").
"Having had the two-year break — being able to exhale and to view what we've achieved with a certain amount of distance — it just felt right," Okereke says, calling before Bloc Party headlines a show in Ibiza. "The only real proviso if we were going to make a record [was that] it needed to sound like it was the four of us in a room together. And that's what all it's about, really — what the four of us do achieve as musicians."
Four certainly feels more live-sounding and streamlined than 2007's A Weekend in the City and 2008's Intimacy, both of which juxtaposed harsh textures (drilling riffs, bristling synthpunk) with lush, delicate sounds (yearning pop, electronic ambience). Part of this cleaner, immediate sound stems from how the songs were written; Okereke says Bloc Party "made a concerted effort to write the songs in the studio as we were going to record them" and knew it didn't want to "rely" on overdubs. However, working with producer Alex Newport (Polysics, At the Drive-In), known for coaxing rich, nuanced sounds out of bands while preserving their live energy, also helped. "We've never worked with someone like Alex before," Okereke says. "He has such a keen ear and such a keen sense of how things work."
Okereke also admits that his solo work was just as illuminating to Four's creative process. In fact, he calls making 2010's The Boxer an "existential experience. I had never written songs outside of Bloc Party. My frame of reference as a musician, as a singer, was something that had been very sheltered. I had only ever been in this band. When I worked with Alex Epton to make The Boxer and then [2011 EP] The Hunter, it was like holding a mirror up to myself. He comes from a very different musical background — he was constantly challenging me on things, like phrasing and what I was doing in terms of songwriting. It forced me to think differently about myself as a musician and as a singer."