Review Summary: Despite a few issues, Bloc Party's return is an unexpected and welcome success.
After the curious and fragmented Intimacy
was released to both a muted critical and public reception in 2008, Bloc Party were already well into the long drawn out process of falling apart. As the two creative leaders, Kele Okereke (vocals/guitar) and Russell Lissack (lead guitar) did a Kid A, i.e. experiment with new electronic sounds and songwriting techniques that left behind the guitar-based dynamic of previous albums, the highly respected rhythm section of Tong and bassist Gordon Moakes were left somewhat out of the creative loop. This, coupled with a lack of communication and the tension that the touring treadmill can create, led to the band calling it a day in 2009. Fast forward to 2012, after the release of a well received solo album by Okereke and Lissack's stint as a touring guitarist for Ash, one of the biggest British indie bands of the 2000's are back with Four
, the group's (as you might have guessed) fourth album.
Kicking off with "So He Begins To Lie", the band waste no time in introducing the new sonic template that comes to define the album. As Matt Tong leads the track with a signature off-beat, disjointed rhythm, the guitars pound through the speakers with a strikingly heavy, distorted, more aggressive quality then what we've come to expect from the band. While Okereke performs as you might imagine, his melodic, hooky vocals propelled by lyrics that are at times abstract and etheral, sometimes menacing and accusatory, occasionally calm and melancholic, it is the expressive and expansive guitar work of Russell Lissack that comes to define the album, his bullish playing a crucial reason why Four
is Bloc Party's best album since Silent Alarm
. His work is outstanding throughout, nowhere more so then on "Kettling", which contains not only Bloc Party's most satisfyingly heavy riff to date, but an impressive Tom Morello-esque solo that is an early album highlight. "3x3" leads us to similiar territory, all pounding rhythms and Lissack's playing the centrepoint. "We Are Not Good People" is a satisfying, guitar driven rocker that resucitates the album after a lagging final few tracks, "Team A" only really comes to life when the guitars do. This is a new, harder Bloc Party, more Sonic Youth than The Smiths, more Smashing Pumpkins than The Cure.
As expected, the band divert from their new sound occasionally. The first single from the album, "Octopus", sounds like an improved version of what the band were trying to do on Intimacy
, all scattered vocals and jittery electronics. On "Real Talk", "Day Four" and "V.A.L.I.S" (a particularly arresting track), the band revert band to their earliest incarnation that saw them become the face of British indie for a few years: Clean, interlocking guitars and Okereke's vocals leading the line. Unfortunately it's when this sound is relied upon that the album begins to struggle. "Truth" and "The Healing", all found in the album's weaker final third, are decent songs but drag down an album that is begging for something better. Like so many bands before them, Bloc Party are at their best and most compelling when they're out of their comfort zone and pushing themseles into new sonic avenues. This is clearest on "Coliseum", which surprisingly starts off with an acoustic guitar (a first for the band") before exploding at 2.29 in an all out aural assault in the vein of what we heard earlier in the album, the rhythm section pounding aggressively yet meticulously, Lissack's explosive, compelling riffs propelling the song as Okereke laments "Pain is hopeful/Pain is holy/Pain is healthy/Pain heals". It's the bands most interesting song to date, and quite possibly their best.
In a positive way, Four
is not at all what I expected from the Bloc Party. I envisioned a further dive into Intimacy
-style electronics, but instead they did an anti-Kid A: Picked up their guitars again and remembered that that can be fun too. Nonetheless, it's undoubtedly a shame that, for whatever reason, they leant too heavily on previous sonic templates in that disappointing final third and thus produced an album that was more scattered and fragmented then it needed to be. If Four was more cohesive as a twelve song unit, we could have an unexpected classic on our hands. For now, we'll just have to settle for the mostly great, sometimes excellent and occasionally frustrating, a description that sums up Bloc Party themselves. Nevertheless, it's great to have them back.