Back in 2005, the year of their stellar debut album, Silent Alarm, Bloc Party truly felt invincible. The British quartet wrangled explosive melodrama from the simplest of rock ’n’ roll tools: the crossfire guitars of Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack, the caffeinated rhythmic thrust of bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong, and Okereke’s snotty, live-wire yelp. Every song felt like an urgent mission statement, delivered with razor-sharp chops and a blindsiding emotional wallop. It was funky yet punky, heavy yet elegant, familiar yet totally fresh. It was also the first chapter in what seemed like a beautiful new era — signaling a revival of the artful, capital-G Guitar Rock long missing in the mainstream since The Bends.
Eight years later, it’s unclear whether Bloc Party is even a band at all. Just this past month — not even a full year since the release of their most recent album, Four — Lissack dropped a surprising bombshell to The National Post, noting the band will enter an “indefinite hiatus” after the completion of their summer tour. “My wife came on tour for two days and said, ’Your life, I can’t handle it. It’s such a roller coaster of extreme highs and extreme lows,’” Lissack said. “That’s quite representative of all the relationships in the band. Maybe we’ll play an amazing show and we’ll be on a real high and then the next day some minor thing will happen and everyone hates each other.”
But Bloc Party have never exactly been built for the long haul, anyway. This isn’t their first flirtation with a break-up: Four was recorded after a brief hiatus, during which time Okereke explored a solo career and the band enjoyed in a slew of tabloid-bait drama. (In September of 2011, the frontman told NME: “I hope I haven’t been fired from the band,” after spotting the other three en-route to a mysterious rehearsal. They later swept the incident under the rug, claiming it was a joke.)
Ever since Silent Alarm’s solitary moment of brilliance, the band has struggled to re-define itself with each album — adding lush layers of sampling and strings to 2007′s A Weekend in the City, embracing an expansive, electronic-heavy palette with 2008′s Intimacy, and peeling back with a gritty, de-tuned menace on Four. Not all of the sonic shifts have worked, but even their most awkward moments (for example, the Pro-Tool’ed patchwork that is “Hunting For Witches”) are anthemic in their own dorky way. This is a band filled with intensely colorful personalities: Tong is one of the most visceral drummers in all of rock; Okereke is both new-wave dream-boat and spawn-of-Rotten Brit-punk prince. It’s possible Bloc Party isn’t big enough to contain Bloc Party.
Who knows whether or not this split will prove permanent? If there’s one thing we’ve learned being Bloc Party fans, it’s to disregard logic. (Hell, just after announcing the hiatus, Lissack dropped the news of the band’s upcoming EP, Nextwave Sessions). And even though this is a catalogue filled with inconsistencies, Bloc Party have still managed some seriously transcendent shit in their chaotic eight-year life-span.
These are Bloc Party’s 10 best songs, as I see them. If I left off your favorite, feel free to ring the Silent Alarm in the comments section.
10. “Selfish Son” (Bonus track from Napster and Rhapsody versions of A Weekend In The City, 2007)
A Weekend in the City is Bloc Party’s patchiest LP, a mix of ill-fitting new textures (the sample-driven “Hunting For Witches”) and re-hashed choruses from Silent Alarm. But “Selfish Son” closes out the album with a rare moment of brilliance — a lighter-waiver ballad laced with a laser-show dual-guitar solo, Tong’s trademark percussive splatter, and loads of twinkling glockenspiel. “I can be cruel to you,” Okereke croons in an endless mantra, as the catharsis swirls toward infinity.
9. “Real Talk” (from Four, 2012)
As they demonstrated on the electronic-heavy Intimacy, Bloc Party ain’t scared of overdubs. But as “Real Talk” proves, they don’t really need ’em. This Four standout is almost unnervingly simple, Okereke patiently unveiling lovelorn confessions over a raw guitar chug, Tong’s reserved pulse, and what sounds like the distant plucking of a banjo. “I’ve lived in every town, but here is where I find home,” Okereke sings, skyrocketing to his falsetto. “My mind is open, and my body is yours.” It’s a sexy, hypnotic simmer that never boils over.
8. “Talons” (from Intimacy, 2008)
With Intimacy, Bloc Party were coloring outside the lines of modern alt-guitar-rock, beefing up their tunes with robust orchestrations and programmed beats. The results were often overstuffed and claustrophobic — but “Talons” was an exception, blending the band’s trademark rock bombast with a slinky electronic style. Eerie Asian synths rub elbows with crushing static and distortion, Okereke howling in the eye of the storm. Intimacy often felt labored in its quest for the unknown, but “Talons” was effortless in its sprawl.
7. “Signs” (from Intimacy, 2008)
The critical punchline on Intimacy is that it’s not too intimate. But at the center of this expansive LP is “Signs,” arguably the band’s most intimate track to date. Okereke is at his most romantic here, mourning a dying love through vivid imagery: “Two ravens in the old oak tree/ one for your and one for me,” he sings over glistening music boxes and haunted synth washes. “The last time that we slept together, there was something that was not there.” The final two minutes are carried home by cinematic strings, as Okereke clings desperately to sanity: “I see signs all the time that you’re not dead; you’re sleeping.”
6. “Day Four” (from Four, 2012)
When Bloc Party drop their guard (and their distortion), they’re experts at new-wave-y make-out ballads: Lissack has a gift for swooning guitar atmospheres, and Okereke possesses one of rock’s most emotive croons when the mood strikes him. With the exception of maybe “Blue Light,” “Day Four” is the dreamiest track the band’s ever written: Okereke’s angelic falsetto on this track makes Chris Martin sound like a bush-league chump. “If you’re ever lonely, stay that way,” he flutters in a punch-drunk stupor, “The city’s here for you.”
5. “V.A.L.I.S.” (from Four, 2012)
“V.A.L.I.S.” may be named after an ominous sci-fi novel, but it’s probably the most lighthearted track in the band’s entire catalog. Over ping-ponging guitars and a taut disco-punk groove, Okereke explores his silkiest falsetto en-route to a chorus hook (“You gotta show me the waaaaay!”) that ranks among their stickiest. Rarely — if ever — have Bloc Party sounded like they’re having so much fun.
4. “Blue Light” (from Silent Alarm, 2005)
“I still feel you and the taste of cigarettes/ What could I ever run to,” Okereke sings in fragile harmony, his voices engulfed by wilting guitar delay. “Just tell me it’s tearing you apart/ Just tell me you cannot sleep.” “Blue Light” is so heartbreakingly awesome, Okereke basically recycled it note-for-note two years later with “Waiting For The 7.18.” Bloc Party may have written more inventive songs, but they never wrote a more powerful one.
3. “Like Eating Glass” (from Silent Alarm, 2005)
Bloc Party have never been heavier or more aggressive than on “Like Eating Glass,” the brilliant, skull-crushing opener from Silent Alarm. What’s most fascinating about this song is its elaborate construction: It opens with an extended drone, Okereke moaning over violent guitar chords and Tong’s spastic bulldozer drums; the instruments seem to almost operate independently of each other. (“We’ve got crosses on our eyes,” Okereke sings at one point, “been walking into the furniture.” That’s a fairly apt description.) Then Moakes’ funky bassline enters the mix at 1:29, suddenly gluing together the pieces before the chorus’ straight-ahead anthemic chug. “Like Eating Glass” is a sonic jigsaw puzzle — but its complexity is hugely cathartic.
2. “Banquet” (from Silent Alarm, 2005)
“Turning away from the light,” Okereke emotes on the chorus, his yelps swarmed by jittery disco-punk tics, “becoming adult, turning into myself.” And that’s exactly what “Banquet” is — the hormonal, exasperated sound of boys becoming men. Above all, though, it’s just incredibly fucking catchy: Okereke never wrote a more memorable chorus, and the band’s intricate, interlocking groove (those criss-crossing guitars, Moakes’ beefy bass runs, Tong’s hyperactive hi-hat) is flawless in execution.
1. “Helicopter” (from Silent Alarm, 2005)
Has a song ever been so fittingly titled? “Helicopter” is a blaring, turbulent behemoth, built on Tong’s machine-gun percussion and trebly guitar shards that stab like propellers. And while Okereke’s politically charged lyrics occasionally border on the heavy-handed (“Why can’t you be more European?,” he asks of then-President Bush. “Just like his dad, same mistakes”), his manic, melodic delivery adds urgency to the message. “Helicopter” remains the definitive Bloc Party anthem.
Listen to the playlist here