Bloc Party makes statement with 'Alarm'

by Bradford Frese | 4/28/05 5:00am

The Killers are everywhere. An assassinated Austrian archduke has risen from the dead. The Rapture is upon us. Far scarier than all this, however, is the fact that I can construct an entire narrative from the names of several different bands that all draw from exactly the same influences.

Let's face it. We don't need another hit record that cops heavily from '80s new wave and post-punk. Dancepunk, '80s revival, et cetera is to the 2000s what grunge was to the '90s; band after band will jump on the bandwagon, and eventually, a truckload of lousy records will populate the used bins of record stores for ages to come.

But if you're reading this, it's likely because the number of stars in the box piqued your curiosity. A rating like that doesn't come from any Johnny-come-lately who happened to pick up a Roland 808, a moog and a hairstyle at a garage sale. Ladies and gentlemen, Bloc Party's debut, "Silent Alarm," is more than a mere dancepunk album; it is a brash, confident statement from a band aiming to take over the airwaves.

It's a pretty lofty goal, but Bloc Party isn't exactly a modest band. "Alarm" is replete with gigantic hooks, boisterous rhythms, bold melodies and scathing lyrics. While Bloc Party's sound borrows heavily from Joy Division, Gang of Four and Talking Heads, it also takes a healthy degree of influence from anthemic punk and post-punk acts like The Clash and U2. Much like "London Calling" or "The Joshua Tree," "Alarm" aims to transcribe love, anger, ambition and political fervor into the lexicon of rock music.

Unlike most of their contemporaries, Bloc Party focuses less on style and more on instrumental proficiency and songwriting chops. The band's rhythm section is its most potent weapon; On the band's best songs, Matt Tong's drums and Gordon Moakes' bass lock together perfectly. Furthermore, while synthesizers and electronic elements are present, they are only there to add texture and color to the band's compositions. While the band can be accused of lacking the wit or charm of Franz Ferdinand or Hot Hot Heat, they make up for it by writing either emotionally resonant songs like "This Modern Love" or grand political anthems like "Helicopters."

The album's first single, "Banquet," is an example of Bloc Party at its best. The verses bounce along on Tong's rock-steady drumming and Russell Lissack and Kele Okereke's call-and-response guitarwork. Then, the song bursts open in the chorus, with Okereke restraining his somewhat yelpy vocals to tie them to the melody and Lissack eliciting memories of U2's The Edge with his guitar playing.

In the opener "Like Eating Glass," Tong's drums tap holes into your skull while Moakes' fingers fly deftly over the fretboard of his bass, providing a much-needed punch. Okereke's lyrics express the claustrophobia of a dying relationship, crying that it's "like drinking poison/like eating glass" over furious down-strumming that expresses the anxiety and frustration of the lyrics. Likewise, the anti-war polemic "Price of Gas" incorporates the sounds of stomping feet, handclaps and indistinct chanting to evoke images of soldiers marching into battle, turning Okereke's rather pedestrian no-blood-for-oil lyrics into a powerful political statement.

Several critics will accuse Bloc Party of overly resembling their influences -- "She's Hearing Voices" could easily be a Joy Division B-side, and some will accuse "Banquet" of sounding a bit too much like Blur's "Song 2" (though this is probably more due to the similarity between Okereke's and Damon Albarn's voices than to any stylistic parallels).

Also, like any debut, there are some awkward moments. Tong's skittering drums on "So Here We Are" don't entirely fit with the gentle guitars, and the harmonized guitar solo at the end of "Plans" is cringe-inducing. Okereke's vocals will also be a sticking point for many -- you'll either despise his sing/speak/bark approach or love it for the way it accommodates rhythm and melody.

Nevertheless, it is hard to remember the last time a guitar rock band made a debut this brash, ambitious and fierce. With this album, Bloc Party is walking a taut wire strung between accessibility and integrity, and they're doing it without a net and without looking back. On "Positive Tension," Okereke shouts, "something glorious is about to happen: a reckoning." One could swear he was speaking about his own band.