A siren call to action as a vibrating guitar line prepares to take off. A frenetic drum pattern leaps in and a collective fidgeting becomes utterly enthralling. What follows is irresistibly energised, the sound of a band playing because they just have to. The tone is set instantly and everyone’s in for the whole ride. Such was the power of that initial listen to ‘Silent Alarm’, almost exactly eleven years ago. The law of diminishing returns has not been kind to Bloc Party. The excessive bombast of ‘A Weekend In The City’ mushed down the spiky edges and momentum was lost. 2008’s ‘Intimacy’ attempted to regain some of the urgency but it hasn’t aged well, the overly loud mastering lending it an air of desperate attention-seeking. As time progressed, it often felt as if their slower, more contemplative material might provide a future. After a sabbatical that seemed most likely to have concluded due to popular indifference to solo projects, ‘Four’ attempted to recover lost ground. ‘Real Talk’ and ‘Day Four’ aside, it was an exercise in avoiding subtlety and dexterity in favour of a curiously limp attempt at potency.
Tensions within the band soon became known, with drummer Matt Tong and then bassist Gordon Moakes both departing to be replaced by Louise Bartle and Justin Harris respectively. And how does ‘Hymns’ do when it comes to setting the new tone? You’ll know ‘The Love Within’ by now, and it is tricky to pin it down with mere words. The chorus is passable indie-pop that you could imagine a roguish, unshaven, denim-jacket-clad semi-finalist on The Voice bashing out one spring Saturday evening, but around it is a synth experiment that gets more upsetting with every listen. With an up-down melody that would keep a toddler amused for less time than it seems to have pleased the band, it renders the song off limits.
‘Only He Can Heal Me’ has the sort of syllable by syllable annunciation in its verses that is surely meant to sound dramatic but always ends up giving the impression that a vocalist is trying to hold in a sneeze. ‘So Real’, despite a few issues with scansion, is one of those rather lovely mid-paced songs at which the band have become rather adept in recent times. A shuffling beat and some curling guitar lines make for the first point of safety on ‘Hymns’. Sadly, it doesn’t last.
‘The Good News’ is a bizarre plodder, reaching its nadir with a half-hearted duelling banjos style warped country music chorus. ‘Fortress’ is a beat in search of a tune, and Okereke’s use of falsetto only serves to underline how it sounds like a generic electro-pop album track. ‘Virtue’ has an endearing strut but, just when you’ve stopped having flashbacks and begun wondering if ‘The Love Within’ has tainted your opinion of the record as a whole, the synth returns. This time it’s in squelchy little stabs rather than marauding squirts, but the damage is done.
‘Hymns’ concludes with two of its finer moments. ‘Exes’ is a pared-down, glittering apology to people that Okereke has hurt in the past. It’s a beautiful vocal performance and a sign of where the band might yet strike gold in the future. ‘Living Lux’, by contrast, is arguably the most successful iteration of their fondness for pulsing, near-euphoric electronic pieces. The masterstroke is never actually letting the beat kick in, ensuring that the suspense sustains it brilliantly. In short, on ‘Hymns’ there’s something close to an excellent EP in amongst some of the very worst things ever to bear the Bloc Party name.
Words: Gareth James
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