Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Records In Review: Bloc Party--Silent Alarm

I'm beginning to think I've got "sucker" tattooed on my forehead; I'm such an easy mark for all of this new wave revivalist stuff.

If I was to compare London's Bloc Party to some of their generational colleagues, I'd say that it's the same ballpark, different hot dog. The influences on display on their debut album Silent Alarm are less of the mod set, Gang Of Four and XTC, and more of P.I.L., The Chameleons (yes, I know I keep bringing them up, but I will continue to do so until people stop ripping them off!) and a little bit of The Cure; so, it's no surprise that BP's is a sound that, like much of the output of these latter three, mixes the aggression with a touch of grandeur--and very successfully too. In terms of instrumentation, it's the guitars that steal the show, as they produce a lot of different sounds, from the sustained to the metrical to the scratchy and reverberated; they're complemented by some keyboard washes and effects here and there. The bass pulses, often with an implied "dubness" to it, and the drums are fairly frenetic, pounding and rough around the edges (usually in a good way, but occasionally with more blood than brains like in the opening to "Banquet"). I hear Martin Atkins in many of the drum patterns (hear "Positive Tensions"). Singer Kele Okereke alternates between subdued achiness and a glottal declamatory style that brings to mind either Robert Smith, Damon Albarn or John Lydon, depending on which song you're listening to. With the vocals, melody is usually secondary to rhythm and attack.

I have to admit that after the first three tracks, I thought that there might be too much of the emo tendency here for my taste, but the middle section of the disc is a peach and with mucho variety. The martial "Price Of Gas" is the most obviously P.I.L.-inspired (hear Okereke's Lydonesque yelps), with the bass and drums providing the foundation in the verse and intro parts while the guitars skitter along the surface. In contrast to this approach, you've got the infectious and radio-friendly new-wave/disco "Banquet," in which the rhythm section and guitars are pretty much working as one metrical unit. Another favorite is "This Modern Love," which, despite it's borderline wimpy-'80s-love-song opening, ends up as quite an exhilarating number. I think it's on tracks like this that the defined edges of the band's instrumentation are a real advantage. BP don't rely on indiscriminate washes of sound, even on the loud and monolithic "Pioneers." "Blue Light" is a sweet, gentle and welcome change of pace.

Back to my Chameleons obsession: I guess what I'm talking about is some of the twin guitar (the opening to "Helicopter" is a good example), the kind of drawn-out sectional songwriting on display in the powerful "Like Eating Glass," and the album's overall blend of wistful and earnest. The final track, "Compliments," does have more of The Cure's shoe-staring dirge quality about it, for those who're into such things. I prefer wistfulness to overwrought, but that's just me (and I am right).

The International Record Evaluation Standards (IRES) require me to deduct a half-cookie for the last few tracks not being up to the standard of the rest of the disc, and an additional quarter for dipping into the same harmonic well maybe once too often, but other than that, this one's yet another keeper, and a nice change from the jerkier styles of the likes of The Futureheads and Maximo Park. Amazing how many of these bands have created a unique sound, despite wearing their influences so boldly on their sleeves. Muchly recommended.

P.S. My burned copy of this disc appears to be missing track 11 ("This one doesn't go up to 11"). If this is the greatest song in the history of rock music, I will adjust my review accordingly.

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