Looking at the landscape of indie music today, and everything the loosely-defined term now encompasses, it can be easy to feel nostalgia for the relatively straightforward indie rock of a decade ago. The mid-2000s gave us an abundance of indie rock bands from both sides of the Atlantic, with garage rock revival acts like The Libertines, Arctic Monkeys, Razorlight, and Franz Ferdinand dominating the British side. Amidst this swarm of jangly, repetitive chords from the UK was Bloc Party, whose 2005 debut Silent Alarm set the band apart with its more experimental and introspective brand of indie rock. Tracks marked by chaotic guitars were bookended by softer, sincere songs, and nothing on the album was the slightest bit repetitive. It was an incredibly strong debut that won the band a significant following, and for better or worse has been held as the gold standard of the band’s music.
Their sophomore album A Weekend In The City came out two years later, and was a comparable effort that added more political lyrics and scattered electronic instrumentation to the mix. It may not have won the band as many fans as Silent Alarm, but for all intents and purposes was a very solid indie rock release. Then in 2008 the band released Intimacy, which saw the band move in a much more electronic direction. Only a few of its songs contained the rock elements that propelled the band’s popularity, making it more divisive than its predecessors.
In case anyone wondered where this electronic direction was coming from, Bloc Party’s frontman Kele Okereke released a solo album The Boxer in 2010 that was entirely dance music. Bloc Party itself would not release another album until 2012, which was aptly named Four and made an attempt to bring back the band’s rock roots with several guitar-driven tracks. Yet this attempt fell flat, overshadowed by earlier releases and failing to strike a balance between overbearing power chords and forgettable slower songs. The following year, Bloc Party announced an indefinite hiatus, and it seemed like it could have been the end of the band.
During the latter half of 2015, Bloc Party started playing shows again, and in October released their first single over two years, “The Love Within.” The first track on their fifth album Hymns, “The Love Within” is a dance track with a somewhat grating synthesizer melody, but a powerful chorus.
If you think “What is this? This isn’t Bloc Party!,” then you’re half-right. During the years between Four and Hymns, drummer Matt Tong and bassist Gordon Moakes left the band and were replaced by new members Justin Harris and Louise Bartle. Okereke also released a second solo album of house-inspired electronic music during this time, and Hymns frankly sounds like it could have been his third solo album.
This is not to suggest that Okereke’s solo work is bad by any stretch, since Hymns once again shows that he knows how to craft a dance track. Tracks like “Virtue” utilize a pulsing synthesizer line over steady drums to create an album standout, while “Only He Can Heal Me” features chanting of the song’s title to create a pretty interesting backtrack. Otherwise, the instrumentation is at the most subtle it’s ever been on a Bloc Party album. This has the effect of making Hymns potentially Okereke’s strongest vocal performance to date, albeit at the expense of the rest of Bloc Party’s components.
This is a shame, since the only other original Bloc Party member remaining is lead guitarist Russell Lissack, who is known for creating some of the band’s signature riffs. The guitar parts of “Banquet,” “Hunting For Witches,” and “One Month Off” from previous albums are all immediately recognizable, and hit “Helicopter” was even featured in two different Guitar Hero games. Yet Hymns is more likely to make you think, “wait, this band had a guitarist?”
Granted, they do try to remind you of their rock roots a couple of times on the album, but these actually turn out to be among its weaker moments. “The Good News” has the same pseudo-hard rock guitar effect that sounded ridiculous on Four’s “Coliseum,” while the sing-talking and scattered melody of “Into the Earth” make it sound like a bad demo track. Instead, the guitar parts of Hymns are at their best when they’re used sparingly, as shown on the sparse notes of “So Real” and “Virtue.” Otherwise, the only other guitarwork standout comes on “Different Drugs,” where the instrument is essentially used like a synthesizer to create a constant ‘wall of sound’ effect that fits surprisingly well.
You may have picked up a spiritual theme from some of these track titles, as the album’s lyrics are surprisingly religious in nature. If the album title Hymns wasn’t a giveaway, you’ll hear verses like “only he can heal me with his touch” and “I used to find my answers in the Gospels of Saint John, now I find them at the bottom of this shot glass.” These shouldn’t come as too big a surprise given that some of Okereke’s solo tracks like “Rise” and “Doubt” have vaguely religious lyrics, yet Okereke insists that he isn’t Christian and is just echoing a spiritual theme on the album. Regardless, the lyrics aren’t a major standout of Hymns, even though they can get pretty groan-worthy at times with lines like “calm down Yoshi, the fungi is helping this fun-guy deliver” on “Into the Earth.” Then again, that same song gives us the somewhat explanatory line “cause rock and roll has got so old, just give me neo-soul,” so maybe it balances itself out.
Given that Bloc Party only seemed to have the options of fruitlessly trying to please Silent Alarm fanatics with another rock throwback or moving more towards the electronic direction hinted on Initimacy, Hymns is still full of surprises. It contains danceable pop moments, the occasional rock-tinged brilliance, and the R&B slow jam “Fortress” all within its eleven tracks. Yet while it is a fairly good album, it is not necessarily a good Bloc Party album. The band obviously wanted try something entirely new, yet it’s difficult to divorce the intensity of their previous releases from the overwhelmingly sedative sound of Hymns. While there is some instrumental handiwork going on, its subtlety means it will be lost on most listeners who will instead remember it as an album that largely consists of Okereke singing over a beat. More to the point, many of his solo tracks would not have sounded the least bit out of place on Hymns, and most are actually livelier due to Okereke’s full commitment into shaping them into his personal deep house project.
Bloc Party should not be given too much criticism for reinventing themselves with Hymns, yet at the same time it’s hard not to think that both the band and its singer’s solo endeavors have created more enjoyable listens than this.