British quartet Bloc Party’s two remaining founding members, frontperson Kele Okereke and multi-instrumentalist Russell Lissack, have said that its sixth album, Alpha Games, is an attempt to recapture the energy of landmark 2005 dance-punk debut Silent Alarm. At the very least, the timing is believable: Before writing Alpha Games, the band played that album in full on its 2019 tour—complete with its dual-guitar attack and dazzling drum work, and Okereke’s lyrics sounding earnest whether he was narrating others’ anxieties or his own disconnectedness.
But the notion of a return to form is a bit dubious: 2012’s Four often felt like the sloppy work of a band desperate to recapture its original spark after the poor reception to 2008’s electronics-heavy Intimacy. Could a conscious effort to revive Bloc Party’s original sound really work this go-round?
Although Alpha Games does often boast the catchy guitar interplay and vicious drumming that defined Silent Alarm, Bloc Party has long lost touch with that album’s youthful spontaneity. Worse yet, the extended nadir that Okereke’s once-intriguing lyrics first slipped into over a decade ago widens further as he tries something new but misguided. Rather than writing as himself, he embodies a roulette of fictional characters whose toxicity hangs off them like a golden cape lined with ricin. These potential attempts at satire land as ham-fisted caricatures, and gratingly contrast with Bloc Party’s quest to revive its initial self. Alpha Games is the sound of a band trying to reignite its former flame, while simultaneously digging its heels so deep into unfamiliar territory, it can’t even reach the lighter.
For better and worse, Alpha Games approximates Silent Alarm’s polyrhythmic dance-punk more than anything since that album’s 2007 follow-up, A Weekend In The City. This proximity to the band’s fast-paced early tunes results in muscular arena-rock romps such as lead single “Traps,” jittery yet moody blasts like “By Any Means Necessary,” and the stuttering synths, frenetic percussion, and arpeggiated guitars of “In Situ.” The latter is musically among the album’s sharpest, but lyrics about—among other things—“talking about cryptocurrencies with the boys of LSE” are so bizarre, they fully take you out of the moment.
The way Okereke describes his characters and paints his scenes is frustrating. He depicts a surreal, far-fetched sort of organized crime on the pulsating, gloomy “Rough Justice,” yet his harshest lyrics are reserved not for the violent folks but for someone who appears in the mix out of nowhere. “The things you do for blow and a little guest list have consequences,” he sneers at god-knows-who, sounding like that new friend you meet during a drug-fueled night at the club, only to sober up and realize they’re a garbage person. His condescension hollows out his ostensible send-up of hotshot masculinity.
This is nothing compared to “Callum Is a Snake,” which disses about a “snide little fuck” wind up pointing to the narrator as the real problem. “I don’t trust him / His eyes are too close together,” Okereke sings; it might be a funny parody if it had any context or nuance, but its rapid pace suggests these words are just the free-flowing awful thoughts of an awful person. Opener “Day Drinker,” which whirls through Bloc Party’s formative guitar arpeggios and anthemics, also comes with an unbelievable narrator whom Okereke likely hoped would seem real. A clear alcoholic, this character accuses his loved ones of staging an intervention only for their own gratification. This outdated trope undermines the very addiction Okereke is trying to explore, and—as with every other character sketch here—it’s unclear what lesson he hopes to impart.
Alpha Games shines when Okereke ditches his hollow character studies for genuine vulnerability, and the music recalls Silent Alarm’s less ballistic side. The hazy hop-skipping guitars of “Of Things Yet to Come” rank among the album’s most memorable, and the gauzy, midtempo reflection “If We Get Caught” is the LP’s clear highlight. “If we get caught / I want you to know / I will always / Ride for you,” goes the chorus, on which airy, high-pitched backing vocals reinforce the sweeping, melancholy guitars. It’s the most affecting Bloc Party song in ages, its crystalline vastness recalling Silent Alarm’s “So Here We Are,” and Okereke means every word. It sounds like what Bloc Party were going for the whole time, and it’s entirely in earnest.