Bloc Party, 'Four' (Frenchkiss)

6
Four
Critical Mass
Release Date: August 21, 2012
Label: Frenchkiss

by Stephanie Benson

Bloc Party have never gotten over all those Gang of Four comparisons. The London quartet keeps trying to shake them, like confused runaways unsure what they're running from; the fawning triggered by their 2005 debut Silent Alarm a relentless, not-so-silent enemy. That breakout album was smart, fun, impassioned, and seemed to come so easy; but since then, the band has found abandoning it to be easier than trying to top it.

Still, they didn't exactly fail. Both 2007's A Weekend in the City and 2008's Intimacy were ambitious in their own rights: the former working that oh-so-British flair for bombastic sociopolitical drama, the latter ruthlessly eyeing the dance floor. But both also felt overproduced, overwrought, and over-thought; when frontman Kele Okereke betrayed a major EDM fixation with his 2010 solo debut, The Boxer, fans began speculating as to whether Bloc Party would ever release new material again.

But on Four (yes, their fourth, released almost exactly four years after Intimacy, and still sure to inspire plenty of comparisons to, well, you know), Bloc Party do sound like a rock band again — just not totally the same one we fell in love with in 2005. Back then, they ascended alongside cheery dance-punk dandies Franz Ferdinand; now, they're touring with sneering NorCal punks Ceremony. If that's not an indication of their new mission to rawk, then consider Okereke's recent revelation that "after my solo record I wanted to have a year without music in a different part of the world"; in the end, he compromised by only bringing four records with him: Led Zeppelin IV, Deftones' White Pony, Nicki Minaj's Beam Me Up Scotty and Al Green's Greatest Hits.

It's fair to say there's not much neon-hued rap or sensuous soul here; of that quartet, Four is closest in spirit to White Pony, frequently taking a dip in the "Digital Bath" and, with the help of At the Drive-In/Mars Volta producer Alex Newport, reveling in that sort of heavy, brooding, prog-plod precision: It's the sound of Bloc Party evolving from confused kids to confident brutes ready for the attack.

That assault starts immediately. For opener "So He Begins to Lie," a bit of Cockney chatter gives way to hi-hat clips, bass jabs, and sizzling feedback as guitarist Russell Lissack ceremoniously breaks through the electronic haze the band had been loitering in for so long — just like that, Bloc Party are a guitar band again. Okereke joins the slaughter on "3x3," threatening us with satanic whisperings and fleshy imagery: "Three times three / First cut first / Pierce the skin / It binds us / Spit cum blood / Liquid wax / No one loves you / As much as us." "Kettling" and the punk-twangy "Coliseum" taunt with more aggro-melodrama, but it's not until the closing track that he roars his most sinister threat: "We're not good people / This is a warning."

Fully half of Four, however, makes that statement hard to believe, and the result may have been more interesting if the band had let that raging beast roam free throughout. Instead, Bloc Party often crawl back to old comforts: catchy handclapped choruses, tense builds, darkly romantic ballads, angry political proclamations set to hip-shaking beats. These other half-dozen tracks, sprinkled throughout, hew more towards Silent Alarm, and though most are welcoming, the juxtaposition is a bit jarring — harkening back to your old stomping grounds never comes easily.

Still, "Octopus" and "V.A.L.I.S." are infectious, moving at a jittery pace, the clipped bass and guitar pulled taut as a slingshot before launching the catchiest hooks this side of "Banquet." Then there are the ballads: "Day Four" gallops with the sweet disposition of the Temper Trap; "Real Talk" and "Truth" build and gather with that "Modern Love" appeal, full of lyrics like "My mind is open / And my body is yours" and "You complete me," purred by Okereke timidly and tamely. As defiant as this gang of four wants to be, they can't help but humbly return to their strengths…and maybe steal a few of Al Green's, too.

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