Album Review: Bloc Party ‘Hymns’
It’s been just over a week since British indie-rock legends Bloc Party released their fifth studio album ‘Hymns’. With the addition of two new members to fill the void created by the loss of founding drummer Matt Tong and bassist Gordan Moakes, ‘Hymns’ sees the new incarnation of Bloc Party continue to explore a more electronic sound, inspired by frontman Kele Okereke’s renewed fascination with gospel music.
“The organ turns into a cheesy sounding synthesizer who’s volume is being controlled by an easily entertained child and backed by an uninspiring bass and drum combination.”
The album’s lead single and opener The Love Within creeps out of the blocks with a brooding church-sounding organ backed by a pumping kick drum. The organ’s increasing volume swells create an epic atmosphere by the time Kele’s softly delivered vocals enter the fray. However, after 80 seconds of gentle building the song reaches it’s climax and…falls flat. The organ turns into a cheesy sounding synthesizer who’s volume is being controlled by an easily entertained child and backed by an uninspiring bass and drum combination.
It’s important to note that, with the exception of ‘Four’, the opening song of any Bloc Party album always begins delicately before ex-drummer Matt Tong kicks the track into gear with a flurry of percussion accompanied by lead guitarist Russell Lissack with an energetic and gritty guitar riff. But the departure of Tong, and to some degree bassist Gordan Moakes, has had an immediate impact on Bloc Party’s ability to sound…well like Bloc Party. So with Lissack on the keyboard and the song driven by an unfamiliar rhythm section, The Love Within just doesn’t carry that beloved Bloc Party spark.
A completely different sound greets listener’s ears on the album’s second track Only He Can Heal Me. A dampened keyboard chord progression hides behind monk-like syllabically chanting, “Only He Can Heal Me”, which later Kele beautifully counters with his own syllabic singing. The song carries a sound similar to the band’s ‘The Nextwave Sessions’ EP, with the gentle driving drumbeat, minimalistic bass, and Lissack’s unique guitar effects delightfully layered in a way allowing Kele’s vocals to remain in the forefront of the listener’s ears.
So Real takes on a very unorthodox Bloc Party sound, with it’s verses sounding more like late night easy listening than the third track of an indie-rock album. With it’s chilled vibe, airy keyboard, pumping bass, and guitar soundscapes it’s a relaxing combination of Day Four and Bloc Party’s 2009 dance hit One More Chance.
The album’s second single The Good News slightly picks up both the tempo and energy levels of the album. But just like in The Love Within the hook falls flat with a lackluster rhythm section and an ill-advised emphasis on an acoustic slide guitar. Much like Coliseum on ‘Four’, the use of an acoustic slide guitar sounds strange in the context of Bloc Party’s sound. And as numerous ‘unplugged’ live performances have proved, Kele’s voice just doesn’t pop when backed by an acoustic guitar.
The next two songs, Fortress and Different Drugs, couldn’t sound more removed from the album’s second single. The tracks revisit Bloc Party’s foray into electronica on ‘Intimacy’, with guitars and drums replaced with electronic percussion, booming synth bass, and computer-generated ambience. Both are beautiful slow burning electronic ballads that wouldn’t sound out of place on a CHVRCHES album.
“…coupled with (the album’s first real) energetic original Bloc Party-esque bassline and a cleverly layered call-and-response synthesizer part in the chorus, sees Bloc Party 2.0 finally successfully merge their electronic and indie-rock sounds together.”
Kele and Lissack return to their guitars for Into The Earth, a song that masks morbid lyrics with bright and upbeat soft rock. It’s a pretty easy listening track that to be honest borderlines sounding a little bland. My True Name dunks you straight back into the deep pool of Bloc Party electronica, which, with the additional of minimalistic guitar work by Lissack, is actually reasonably enjoyable.
The album’s third single Virtue flirts with the dangerous line between replicating the mistakes in The Love Within and being a genuine Bloc Party 2.0 banger. The cheesy synthesizer from the opening track returns but sounds much better used sparingly. This, coupled with (the album’s first real) energetic original Bloc Party-esque bassline and a cleverly layered call-and-response synthesizer part in the chorus, sees Bloc Party 2.0 finally successfully merge their electronic and indie-rock sounds together.
After Virtue’s high energy, the album’s tenth track Exes is an accidental killjoy. It’s a solid soft rock anthem, the kind that invites crowds to wave their phone lights in the air and sway with one another, but unfortunately is placed in the wrong part of the album.
The last tracks on ‘Hymns’ see Bloc Party continue to delve into their electronic sounds, to varying degrees of success. Paraiso is the diamond in the rough, as Bloc Party’s new rhythm section find their groove nicely, paving the way for Kele’s alluring vocal delivery and fun melody. The cherry on top is Lissack’s guitar work, as he finally finds room to open up his fingers and use his multitude of guitar effects, creating an intricate and energetic melody and eventual delay-driven soundscape.
“as with every Bloc Party album, there are true indie-rock (and finally some electronic) gems on ‘Hymns’, it’s just up to the listener to approach one of the world’s greatest indie-rock bands with an open mind.”
Bloc Party has been unfairly held up against an unassailable pedestal ever since the monumental popularity of their 2005 debut album ‘Silent Alarm’. In the decade since the album’s hit single Helicopter became an immortal indie-rock anthem, every new Bloc Party release has been met with criticism for not replicating that sound. For those fake Bloc Party loyalists who are crying out only for another ‘Silent Alarm’, ‘Hymns’ will be a major disappointment. However, those Bloc Party fans that appreciate musicianship and see the value of the band’s foray in electronica on ‘Intimacy’, then several tracks from ‘Hymns’ will be welcomed with open arms.
Yes, with the loss of their irreplaceable founding drummer and bassist Bloc Party now lacks a certain spark – their electronic tracks just don’t sound as natural and together as their tried-and-true guitar driven indie-rock. But, as with every Bloc Party album, there are true indie-rock (and finally some electronic) gems on ‘Hymns’, it’s just up to the listener to approach one of the world’s greatest indie-rock bands with an open mind.