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On Silent Alarm, Bloc Party said hello and goodbye to indie rock

On <i>Silent Alarm</i>, Bloc Party said hello and goodbye to indie rock
Image: Album cover, Graphic: Libby McGuire
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The arc of music history is long, allowing us to find new favorites in the past or imagine a time when some currently under-appreciated gem will find a greater audience. It also leaves room for even artists to revisit an album they’ve been distancing themselves from since its release.

Silent Alarm, the 2005 debut album from Bloc Party, is hardly a source of embarrassment or even a point of contention for once-and-future frontman Kele Okereke. His relationship with the band’s most popular and critically acclaimed album, which turned 14 this year, has never been on the same level as, say, Rivers Cuomo’s back-and-forth with Pinkerton. When Okereke and bandmates Russell Lissack, Gordon Moakes, and Matt Tong entered the indie-rock scene in 2005, they were determined to both match more established acts beat for beat while pushing out of the genre’s bounds. The 13-track album is a high-water mark for the band, but when the 10th anniversary rolled around in 2015, Okereke was initially opposed to any nostalgia-driven touring.

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In a 2014 interview, Okereke told the Australian outlet MusicFeeds that, as far as these types of retrospectives go, he didn’t feel “that sort of thing does much good for artists. I always cringe a little bit when you hear about bands going around just touring on a kind of anniversary record. I feel that it just seems a little bit cynical.” At the time, the Bloc Party singer and rhythm guitarist, who founded the band with lead guitarist Lissack in 1998, felt the best way to mark the occasion “would be to make more records, not just to look back to where we were.” Bloc Party did make more records, including the maligned A Weekend In The City and the line-blurring Intimacy, before going on hiatus in 2009. In the years since, Okereke has released solo albums The Boxer, Trick, and the personal Fatherland, while Lissack also plays in the band Pin Me Down.

Yet here we are in 2019, just two weeks from the release of Silent Alarm Live, an album comprising recordings from their live performances of—you guessed it—Silent Alarm. The touring, which began in October 2018, is ongoing, with dates set across Europe for June as well as a short Stateside stint scheduled for fall 2019. The live versions of enervating jams like “Helicopter” and the more meditative “Blue Light” have been well-received by concertgoers, but then, it’s not the fans who have felt conflicted about revisiting the album, which has sold 1 million copies worldwide since its release. Silent Alarm remains one of the most assured debut albums, combining anthemic choruses, standout percussion, and lead vocals somewhere between a yawp and a croon. There’s no filler, no track it wouldn’t pain you to skip over; the band floors it throughout, fusing intimate confessions about broken homes and a broader sense of disillusionment with hypno-dance beats and stadium-rock guitars. Okereke et al. made their big break count with Silent Alarm, hitting a number of 2005 best-of lists, even beating Arcade Fire’s debut, Funeral, to nab Album Of The Year from NME.

When the album turned 10 in 2015, it inspired a number of retrospective pieces that confirmed its lasting appeal, but that’s not what prompted a change of heart from Okereke; as he told NME’s Andrew Trendell earlier this year, he’s still focused on “looking forwards, not looking backwards.” But just as queueing up the lusty, Pixies-inspired “Banquet” leads to taking in the bittersweet melody of “Blue Light” and the paranoia of “She’s Hearing Voices,” Okereke found that all he had to do was get started. “It was only when we started rehearsing that I started to inhabit the songs and go back to the place that we were when we made the music,” he said. Although it was undeniably a look back, by performing the album’s tracks the “best [they] ever had,” Okereke felt Bloc Party gave new life to Silent Alarm, which made the latest tours behind it a look forward as well.

We couldn’t get our hands on Silent Alarm Live ahead of its release (which has been pushed back twice) but the news that, even with half of the original lineup—drummer Matt Tong left in 2013 followed by bassist Gordon Moakes in 2015—Bloc Party sounds just like the confident, cohesive group of upstarts from 2005 is reassuring and intriguing. Apparently, the band has taken to upending the song order, kicking things off with the reverb-laden “Compliments,” which is officially the closing track, and wrapping with the domestic fury of “Like Eating Glass.” Given Okereke’s own reversal, it makes perfect sense to move away from the listless vibe of “Compliments”—“We sit and sigh / And nothing gets done”—which always felt like an anticlimactic way to end the album, in a live performance. In hindsight, though, “Compliments” also seems to point to the band’s restlessness within the genre after making a killer first impression.

That restlessness drove Bloc Party to give Okereke’s “urbanite relaxation” concept a shot on A Weekend In The City and play with more unconventional compositions on Intimacy (there was a six-year gap between LPs, as Bloc Party didn’t return with Hymns until 2015). Of course, elbowing its way into the genre in 2004 (with the first 7-inch of “She’s Hearing Voices”) didn’t leave the band a whole lot of time to revel in that wave of indie rock. But even as Okereke chanted lyrics like “We’ve got crosses on our eyes / Been walking into the walls again,” it always felt like the band kept its eyes trained to the horizon. It wasn’t just a desire to hone their musical chops; as Okereke revealed in a Noisey feature, the whiteness of indie rock at the time (and the present, if we’re being honest) wasn’t lost on him or his bandmates. “We quickly identified that there was a conservatism in indie rock, a purism that seem [sic] to belie quite a dangerous logic,” Okereke wrote. “Rock music is one of the few areas in music where it seems diversity is not to be encouraged. Can anyone remember the last time a major British music magazine put a non-white face on its cover?”

If you glance at the year-end lists for 2005 (or most years before or since), you’ll find Okereke’s not wrong. But it wasn’t just Bloc Party’s contemporaries, bands like Franz Ferdinand, LCD Soundsystem (who also made its debut in 2005), and The Bravery, who were predominantly white—so were most of the people who were covering music. “When Bloc Party started, we were told that things would be hard for us because indie rock was a predominantly straight white male world,” Okereke wrote for Noisey. “So we were as surprised as any that our records charted and our tours sold out. We realized that the fans of music didn’t seem to have a problem with the color of my skin or sexual orientation, it was rock journalists, always white male rock journalists that seemed to have an issue with it.”

Knowing that Bloc Party—and in particular, Okereke—felt shut out just as they showed up makes their debut effort all the more impressive. They drew from similar inspirations as bands like The Libertines did, influential groups like Pixies and Sonic Youth and Joy Division, to create some of the most infectious yet personal rock of the mid-aughts. But they were more expansive in their approach, combining elements from club and house music with more traditional rock. Okereke’s vocals, which could go from snide to imploring while remaining a wail, were bolstered by staccato percussion and soaring guitars on tracks like “Positive Tension” and “Pioneers.” They’re some of the most politically pointed offerings of Silent Alarm, along with “Price Of Gas,” where hand claps meet an excoriation of the NIMBY attitude the rich and middle class held regarding George W. Bush’s war for oil.

Like many of their peers, the then-twentysomethings of Bloc Party were angry about the state of the world, but Silent Alarm doesn’t center around its critiques—it’s both bigger and more intimate than them. With its pounding intro, “Little Thoughts” tries to encompass everyday life, reminding us that “this world ain’t just made of facts,” that “every half hour is a countdown.” The self-conscious lyrics of “This Modern Love”—“Baby, you’ve got to be more discerning / I’ve never known what’s good for me”—both contradict and complement the optimism that lives in its cascading keyboard and guitars. “So Here We Are” is a bit of a feint: The matter-of-fact title evokes a sense of being in the moment, like Oasis’ Be Here Now, but the ethereal chorus of “I can see again” proves Okereke et al. are eyeing the future. That might seem a bit counterintuitive for a band making its debut, but on Silent Alarm, Bloc Party was already poised to move on, having released an album that fueled an outsider’s perspective with consummate musicianship.