Bloc Party’s new line-up gets the chance to show what it’s made of.
After racing out of the traps with three albums in four years, Bloc Party left their competitors either for dead or flailing around, trying to catch up with their rapid movement through art-rock, post-punk (in old money), electronica and house-pop.
Yet when the original line-up took the time for a well-earned hiatus, the four-piece went through a turbulent period. The rhythm section left prior to the recording of 2016’s gospel-electro Hymns, which had its moments but felt incomplete, such as it was having only two full-time members present during recording.
Although Justin Harris (bass) and Louise Bartle (drums) were recruited for the supporting tour, it’s taken a further six years to hear the new line-up’s first collaborative efforts.
Pleasingly, Alpha Games is more of a refinement than an overhaul with a healthy balance between new sonic developments (as they were always wont to do) and recognition of what made the group so unique.
Acute awareness of the modern world has long been Kele Okereke’s defining lyrical trait, and this sixth album finds him (or the characters within the songs) burning bridges, cutting ties and giving in to the base instincts of corruption, ambition and desire, and generally revelling in their dysfunction.
‘He says he knows when I’m lying and he says he knows when I’m not’, he observes on opener Day Drinker, referencing a ‘little brother’ against the simmering-then-visceral angular rock, exchanging chords with fellow founder Russell Lissack (always interesting and here densely backing the verses with interspersed licks) while Harris and Bartle immediately demonstrate their worth, tightly wound and in sync thereby allowing their bandmates to cut loose. A good introduction all round, and the whipcrack percussion of In Situ re-emphasises the point later in the album.
The Strokes may want the driving riff from Juicebox back from the compact Traps, which served its function as a return well even is the ‘lickety-split’ line does make the skin crawl somewhat, while the equally disciplined Callum Is A Snake has the energy of the early iterations of Bloc Party, all rollicking riffs and matter-of-fact vocals, introduced by a jungle beat to make Goldie proud.
Other electronic influences are conveyed on the juddering Rough Justice, which fuses The Streets at their more intense moments with swaggering EDM before a heavy ending, straddling ludicrous before landing on just the right side.
The hypnotically sleazy The Girls Are Fighting, complete with tribal beat and riff as a fire alarm, stomps manfully (and ironically) before Lissack unleashes his inner John Squire, albeit only briefly.
Bloc Party have always offered up tracks with layers which reveal themselves upon repeated listen, and Lissack matches his best on the album, but some things are immediate.
The achingly honest and strikingly beautiful Of Things Yet To Come (‘There I go making a show of myself again’) is the latest in a line that runs all the way back to So Here We Are; songs that are unafraid to pull on the heartstrings but saved from mawkishness by the indie sensibilities.
Okereke has spoken in interviews about letting go of relationships as being one (of many) circumstance that influenced his writing, with this sumptuous comedown song leaving little room for misinterpretation. The widescreen If We Get Caught is also a riff on a classic Bloc Party idea, the romanticism which can be founded in running away and sharing intimate secrets.
You Should Know The Truth is nearly as sweet but is let down by an unchallenging (if catchy) chorus which is probably beneath Bloc Party by now (although it does show their musical ambition as it blissfully floats away), as is the stuck guitar echo on Sex Magik, recalling previous single Octopus. It’s familiarity is rescued by the soaring vocal delivery of a cynical line: ‘I’ll survive like the marrow in our bones’.
The Peace Offering ends things in a pensive way, its oceanic drift reminiscent of Okereke’s last solo album The Waves Pt 1, which builds to some brutally fizzing electro-rock in the vein of Mogwai as Okereke looks around, reflects then moves on: ‘The first thing I lost was belief in the system, but in the end the system always wins’, ‘I think it’s better you stay where you are and I’ll watch you from afar.’
He has never been the most carefree lyricist, but the approach of middle age seems to be instilling a sad resignation in Okereke, but the impetus from the new members ensures a snarl is never far away.
A fact for which we should all be grateful, for when Bloc Party have purpose and inspiration, it’s a fool’s errand to compete. Alpha Games may be the start of a glorious second act.