, August 21st, 2012 09:09
Bloc Party would really like you to know how authentic their fourth album is. It opens with studio chatter, reassuring Matt Tong drumming and screeching amp, and later gets interlaced with impromptu snippets of conversation, including frontman Kele Okereke's thoughts on turkey breast and baby spiders. From the off, the band seems keen to stress that this is four guys, recording to tape, free of adornments and, hey, still rockin'! That sense of having something to prove runs through the simply titled Four, from its no-nonsense production and title, to its amps-to-eleven loud bits. It all comes across as an attempt to restate the band's relevance, and tries it through a mixture of ripping your face off and breaking your heart.
It's important to note from the start that Four, other than in its absence of anything electronic, is categorically not the back-to-basics record it's been hyped up as and, while there's a sense of relief that they've dodged the easy option of rewriting Silent Alarm, the LP still gives a frustrating feeling that Bloc Party aren't quite sure what it is they do best. Too often on Four, 'loud' gets confused with 'good', and impact wins out over subtlety, while there's a noticeable split between material that builds on lessons learned from the records they've made since their debut and material that seems like it's trying to convince you that what the world's been missing since 2009 is Bloc Party, hard rock act.
The problems emerge on second track '3x3', a song that marries the absurd operatic stylings of Muse with a bland and sludgy wall of noise that honestly wouldn't sound wayward on a nu-metal record. Student riot-referencing thrasher 'Kettling' also guts the band's trademark tension and restraint and trades it for a bludgeoning riff and System Of A Down-esque heaviness. The worst offender is by far 'Coliseum', a cut that begins with some promising Beck-style acoustic swagger matched with distorted vocals, sounding like nothing they've done so far, before unexpectedly plunging off a cliff into a screaming metal-tinged endurance feat, complete with cringeworthy solo. As a "we're back" statement, it demands attention, but comes across as shallow.
Four's main issue is less to do with the heaviness in and of itself, however, and more to do with how that heaviness is deployed. All too often, its insistence on being as loud as possible seems filler for thoughtful composition, and while there are tracks where stacking the amps up works brilliantly - breathless album closer 'We Are Not Good People' is hard-edged, but its verses give it some bass-led breathing space, and 'Team A' does a good job of saving the noise for a well-deserved payoff - it's sometimes easy to forget that this a band who were initially marked out from their peers by a mixture of technical ability and a willingness to do something interesting with it. The reliance on the insta-drama of shredding and shrieking undersells what an inventive unit they can be.
When they're not trying so hard to cause a scene, however, they go about quietly perfecting their windswept, softer side. This yields the remarkable 'Day Four', a track they couldn't possibly have made seven years ago, and one which sparingly brings in the strings to craft a subtle, mesmeric paean to conquering addiction. Okereke's voice has only grown in stature since the debut, and though the old-school yelps pop up occasionally, he's now able to slide into a confident falsetto, as rolled out to haunting effect on 'The Healing', a track that stands as one of the best things these four have put their names to and which achieves epic and lovelorn while avoiding bombast. Brilliant banjo-tinged 'Real Talk' doffs its cap to TV On The Radio, a sultry R&B groove that sees Kele nail 'personal' without being trite, while 'V.A.L.I.S.' is an infectiously playful track that brings back the Okereke/Moakes vocal interplay to hit that Bloc Party sweet spot of tight, book-smart and catchy. It also wins the coveted title of being the best song written with the word 'phenomenology' in it... to date. [what about the ace These New Puritans one? - Phenomenology-spotting ED]
That Four is laced with some of the band's hands-down strongest work, then, makes its weaker moments and occasional in-your-face insistence all the more grating. Okereke has put on record that he believes this to be the best album Bloc Party have made, and while plenty will balk at that view, it's hard to begrudge four friends, who'd clearly grown distant, getting back together with the brave and simple aim of writing without a plan. At its best, Four fulfils its not-too-subtle PR spiel of being an off-the-cuff record that the people involved in actually felt comfortable making. It's just unfortunate that the other bit seems obsessed with making sure someone's listening.