REVIEW: Bloc Party – Alpha Games

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The prefix “technicolor” never stuck to the British indie-rock of the early 2000s, but that’s how the BLOC PARTY frontman, Kele Okerere, described their extremely tight 2005 debut, “Silent Alarm,” – and technicolor it was! While their indie-crossover peers such as INTERPOL, FRANZ FERDINAND, and FUTUREHEADS had some decent one-off hits at the time, BLOC PARTY did not have much competition in terms of coherent full-length albums. Eventually, with universal acclaim, the debut was named Indie Album of the Year at the 2006 PLUG Awards. It raised the bar rather high. In retrospect, it almost seems as though their later albums did not really live up to the hype created by the haunting debut. Then again, their music has become even more technicolor over the years, with new layers such as electronic elements, brass sections, and string arrangements. The previous studio album, “Hymns,” (2016) had a good pinch of R&B and gospel flavor even. It might explain the mixed reviews; there’s only so much “technicolor” the general public can take in one go. In retrospect, it very much seems as though the band has embarked on a journey to explore new, extreme possibilities that you can do in the somewhat rigid post-punk indie stall. Their latest findings will see the light of day on April 29th, 2022, under the title, “Alpha Games,” and the new studio outing will be released via BMG. Quite obviously, the kind of amyl-nitrite-driven, high-energy indie footing of the debut is pretty much gone but it is replaced with, yes, technicolor soundscapes of all sorts.

The album opener, “Day Drinker,” is a full-tilt post-punk banger, along with the follow-up track, “Traps,” which was released as a video single last year. Both cuts echo the vibes from their debut rather nicely. The guitars sound maybe a bit grittier and the overall production sounds a bit more up-to-date: there is a real sense of space. “Alpha Games” is one of those albums best enjoyed by listening to them with headphones in order to get the best flavor of all the hidden nuances.

By the third track, “You Should Know the Truth,” it becomes obvious that the post-punk moniker is nowhere nearly adequate. The subtle echoes from the 1980s hits by THE POLICE might yet fall in line with the label, but the drum&bass-inspired drum beat on “Callum Is a Snake,” let alone the techno aesthetics on “Rough Justice,” stretch far beyond the stereotypical post-punk fashion. Besides, with a little bit more grit on the guitars, “The Girls Are Fighting” could fit any BLACK KEYS album with no trouble. (Okay, the space synth might raise a bit of concern in certain rock puritans…)

For some reason, “Of Things Yet to Come” triggers strong SIMPLE MINDS flashbacks from the mid-1980s. Maybe it stems from the verses, since the coda sounds closer to RADIOHEAD. Whichever way you wish to look at it, one thing should be rather obvious by now: BLOC PARTY does indeed sound like the technicolor version of your typical indie-crossover outfit. For the casual one-size-fits-all listener, it may prove an issue. For the rest of us, it only adds to the band’s appeal.

Of course, in the spirit of the true post-punk revival, the album needs a couple of disco-indie tracks, too. Enter the songs, “Sex Magik” and “By Any Means Necessary.” The first contender, whether a homage to the English occultist, Aleister Crowley, or the 1991 album classic by RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS, sounds maybe a bit more influenced by progressive house music, after all. The latter traverses the same sonic realms as the American indie-rock outfit, THE KILLERS. “In Situ,” in turn, balances between disco beats and experimental indie-rock. The harmonic, dueling guitars at 1:57 resonate with a curious IRON MAIDEN touch. No, I damn well did not see this coming. Maybe the guitar motif could have lasted a bit longer, if only to confuse the listener a little bit more.

Maybe it’s just me but the widescreen, post-rockish guitars on “If We Get Caught” resonate rather strongly with the air of DREDG. It is a sonic feature that certainly is not without a hearty amount of appeal. Otherwise, the song is a pretty basic indie-rock number with a subtle, vintage art-rock touch, what with the staccato vocals of the chorus channeling the ghosts of the 1980s and 1990s.

In a little bit of an out-of-the-ordinary manner, the album brings things to a close with the ballad-y track, “The Peace Offering.” The guitar arpeggios sound off as though through a vast ocean of space and most of the lyrics are chanted, spoken, and mumbled rather than sung, creating a distinct sense of intimacy. Befittingly, this hymn-like track is the longest on the album, building up momentum towards the end. The coda with the tape-delayed synths and guitars resonates with a somewhat similar, haunting air as the solo section on the live version of “Mysterons” by PORTISHEAD on their stellar “Roseland NYC Live“ album.

After a few spins, it becomes clear that BLOC PARTY is not trying to emulate their past efforts too slavishly on this new offering. So, I guess they must be some kind of misfits in the British post-punk scene. Thus, I feel reluctant to hail “Alpha Games” as a triumphant return to form. Somehow I got the feeling that this bunch does not really give two shits about fitting the form. Of course, you can never really escape your roots and why should you? They still have the knack for writing catchy 3-minute indie bangers with a twist. As much as we may like that side of the band, they have so much more stuffed up their sleeves – the outsider genius bunch for the jaded indie generation, maybe? I don’t know yet. Their new outing resonates with the air of an album that grows on you over time. Upon first hearing “Silent Alarm,” I wasn’t really that convinced it was such a brilliant album. Of course, I have to bear some bad news for the popcorn generation: this album may take some time to blow your mind but I feel rather confident that it most certainly will do so with flying… no, with technicolors!

Written by Jani Lehtinen

Tracklist

  1. Day Drinker
  2. Traps
  3. You Should Know the Truth
  4. Callum Is a Snake
  5. Rough Justice
  6. The Girls Are Fighting
  7. Of Things Yet to Come
  8. Sex Magik
  9. By Any Means Necessary
  10. In Situ
  11. If We Get Caught
  12. The Peace Offering

Lineup

Kele Okereke – vocals, rhythm guitar

Russell Lissack – lead guitar

Justin Harris – bass

Louise Bartle – drums

Label

BMG / Infectious Music

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