Silent Alarm Turns 10
You know who loved the NYC rock resurgence that kicked off this millennium? British people. Ryan Leas made the case in his remembrance of LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut that by 2005 the so-called “new rock revolution” had jumped the shark, Brooklyn had supplanted Manhattan as the epicenter of the New York music scene, and a new era of rock history was upon us. In the UK, though, it was as if the old era just kept going; even the end of national rock ‘n’ roll saviours the Libertines couldn’t snuff it out. Circa 2005, Great Britain was exporting a slew of garage rock and post-punk hybrids that managed to be both commercial and creative. It was the height of Franz Ferdinand, the genesis of Arctic Monkeys, the prime of the Futureheads, the one time people took Art Brut seriously. These were exciting bands — bands that blew up online but nonetheless felt like a connection to a bygone era of print magazines, physical record stores, and MTV — and none of them excited me like Bloc Party, whose debut album Silent Alarm turns 10 this weekend.
It’s such a ridiculous band name, isn’t it? I always assumed the communism pun was a reference to Gang Of Four’s influence on these guys, the razor-sharp guitars and lockstep drums and vaguely political gestures. That stuff is definitely in the mix on Silent Alarm, especially “Price Of Gas” and its refrain, “We’re gonna win this!” But Gang Of Four’s punk-rock scope was incongruent with Bloc Party’s arena-rock ambitions. They seemed set on becoming the Biggest Band In The World, and accordingly U2 — still the actual biggest band in the world at the time, thanks to Apple and “Vertigo” — loomed just as heavily in Silent Alarm’s fist-pumping rockers and post-punk power ballads. Mostly, though, Bloc Party seemed to have ingested as much of that NYC scene as possible. It was like they’d meticulously studied the Strokes and Interpol and the Rapture and the whole lot of them, stripped them for spare parts, and built this towering, unwieldy rock ‘n’ roll machine — “towering” because at its best this music really was massive, “unwieldy” because it at its worst it toppled over under the weight of ardor, “machine” because these songs often felt like Pacific Rim robot suits designed to amplify Kele Okereke’s fiery human spirit.
A discussion of “Helicopter” behooves us. There we witness Bloc Party’s engine hitting on all cylinders, and it is glorious. The song begins with the greatest double-guitar onslaught since “Reptilia,” an aggressive tangle of riffs that sounded like a couple of Transformers careening down the side of a mountain while fistfighting. Okereke and Russell Lissack spend the rest of the song darting and snaking with vicious precision, wrapping you up and slicing you open while the rhythm section blasts off with the kind of electricity usually reserved for the young and shameless. Drummer Matt Tong was the not-so-secret weapon in this band — a whole artillery, really, given the way his parts rained down like a torrent of fireworks and machine guns without losing the beat. Poor Gordon Moakes was relegated to actual secret-weapon status. Trust that Okereke’s sincerely howled “Are you hoping for a miracle?” wouldn’t register half the impact without his bassist doing the usual bassist dirty work.
“Helicopter” was clean-cut rock ‘n’ roll at its most potent, and Bloc Party reached nearly as high elsewhere on the album. Momentous opener “Like Eating Glass” whipped up a hell of a storm, “Banquet” was an instant rock ‘n’ roll dance night staple, and “This Modern Love” came this close to the Generational Anthem status it strived for. That song lacked the mechanistic wallop that defined Bloc Party’s best moments, and that bombast was necessary to sell the corniness. Thus, when they went full ballad on “Blue Light” and “So Here We Are,” it was charming and even winsome but also clumsier than when they rawked out. That’s why it was frustrating to see them discard that fury later on in favor of moodier experimental sounds. Silent Alarm shines brighter than the rest of Bloc Party’s discography largely because of that initial ferocity, the unquenched hunger of wildly talented young band on its way up.
As a result, like the bands that preceded and informed them, Bloc Party ended up with a fully realized opening statement they could never live up to again, one that absolutely belongs in the canon of fully formed rock ‘n’ roll debuts. Silent Alarm seemed destined for that kind of reputation at the time: It was heralded as a Great Rock Record upon its release, inspiring near-unanimous praise and topping NME’s year-end list. But the album didn’t end up wielding the same hefty cultural weight as Is This It or Turn On The Bright Lights, and whereas those records have accumulated prestige over the years, I get the sense that people don’t remember how awesome Silent Alarm is anymore. That’s a shame because this album lords — “so underrated,” indeed.