It’s never been clear what kind of band Bloc Party wants to be, and their latest album, “Intimacy,” makes it even harder to tell.
They certainly refuse to hang on to any idea for long. The band’s restlessness becomes a problem on its third full-length, in which it doesn’t explore any particular style enough to use it for much more than novelty. The London quartet made its name with taught, stylish, Gang of Four-influenced pop-rock on its debut “Silent Alarm,” in which it manages to distinguish itself from an enormous pack of similar bands through the sheer strength of its craftsmanship.
The band got a bit more ambitious with last year’s widely underrated “A Weekend in the City,” playing with the sounds of American emo and U2-style uplift; it aimed to be soaring and inspiring, but often sounded bland, toothless, even Coldplay-ish. Although front-man Kele Okereke’s urgent lyrics were appealingly honest, they were occasionally awkward, even embarrassing. Only the band’s sheer musical talent made the record a success.
On “Intimacy,” which was released “In Rainbows” style—digitally with almost no promotion—Bloc Party has shifted directions radically, and faces radically different problems. While the group flirted with drum machines, synths and sound collage on “Weekend,” there was no doubt that Bloc Party was a relatively straightforward guitar band. But on “Intimacy,” the group seems to want to be a different kind of band entirely, delivering only two tracks that sound like Bloc Party songs. The emo-ish “Halo” and “One Month Off” would have fit snugly into the melodrama of “A Weekend in the City.”
For much of “Intimacy,” the band seems to be taking cues from younger, edgier UK bands like Foals, These New Puritans and Klaxons, who emphasize the dance part of dance-punk by grafting electronics and samples onto clattering rock.
Clatter is probably the best word to describe the two singles that preceded the record’s release, “Mercury” and “Trojan Horse,” as well as the album’s lead track “Ares.” Those songs are blurs of siren-like guitars, chaotic drums, electronic noises and stabbing horn samples. Okereke’s vocals are split into a handful of tracks and processed until he sounds like a room full of shouting men and robots.
These songs are jarring and exciting at first, but Bloc Party doesn’t do anything new with the ideas they have borrowed. The songs are enjoyable, but no better than recent similar work by the aforementioned Foals or These New Puritans. The band can’t really justify ripping off less popular contemporaries.
The rest of the record is devoted to Bloc Party’s romance with electronics. “Biko,” the fourth track, mirrors the course of the album. It begins with a trebly, trembling guitar reminiscent of “Blue Light,” a “Silent Alarm” standout, which then fades out amid swelling synthesizers and mechanical claps.
As “Intimacy” marches on, guitars get de-emphasized and often disappear, while the last two songs, “Better than Heaven” and “Ion Square,” like the latter half of “Biko,” are airy, Cure-like synth-pop. While these songs are unlikely to make anyone forget the Cure, they are probably the best-executed tracks on the record.
“Signs” and “Zephyrus” are the most adventurous songs on the album, and also the weakest. The backing tracks of both songs are truly imaginative soundscapes. “Signs” sounds like dozens of bells over a quietly pulsing beat, while on “Zephyrus” an enormous choir (which may or may not be made up of real human voices) provides most of Okereke’s accompaniment.
Those ideas could be used stunningly, but Bloc Party tacks them onto some of the weakest tunes it has ever written. The band seems content to shock the listener with radically new sounds without bothering to use its new tricks to make good music.
All the styles at play on “Intimacy” make the record an interesting listen at first, but it has no staying power. The band’s apathetic songcraft is infuriating and completely uncharacteristic. I hope Bloc Party continues to explore the sort of music they made for “Intimacy.” I just hope that next time they take care to write some quality songs.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5