Rewind back to three years ago and things weren't, on the surface, going swimmingly for team Bloc Party. The group's third album Intimacy was their worst critically and commercially received album thus far, whilst one-off single 'One More Chance' saw front man Kele Okereke fully relegate his band to 'Kele & The Bloc Parties' status. In fact it's pretty much just Kele, as he takes the heavily electronic sound first found on 2007's 'Flux' and explored further on 'Intimacy' to fully brash levels, poor Gordon Moakes, Matt Tong and Russell Lissack - fine players all on their respective tools - erased. Thankfully, a break is called; either because Kele wants to get all this euro-trance out of his system in private, or maybe because the others feel they might be serving their time better than just standing around in the sound control room watching the singer do his stuff.
Either way, as Four, the erm. fourth album from the London four-piece, kicks off, the emphasis is clear: this is back to basics, stripped down, Kele has unlocked the closet and given the other three their instruments back. And thank god for that; you can almost sense their delight on the album's opening salvo of 'So He Begins To Lie' and '3x3', two tracks full of scything riffs with nary a tacky house piano line in sight. Bloc Party are trying to convey their raw qualities so emphatically, in fact, that you can hear them preparing for the take before launching off, whilst elsewhere snaps of them talking break up tracks. This is Bloc Party at their barest yet, so they seem to want us to believe.
Certainly, it is a pleasure to hear Russell Lissack playing an axe in anger again, whilst Kele's voice, so overly compressed on their last album, is embedded more within the group's overall sound, which, for the most, has been beefed up much like the gym-caning front man's own physique. They show genuine progression too, on 'Team A' for instance, channelling the spirit of 'End Hits' era Fugazi, spindly hooks firing off one another with a taut, lean sound on a track that also highlights the simple yet sultry groove of Moakes' bass lines.
What is missing, though, is that sense of vice-like tension that underpinned the group's best moments - namely most of 'Silent Alarm' and about half of 'A Weekend In The City'. Short of getting back to basics, Bloc Party here are either rocking hard or staring down the barrel of earnest reflection which, as anyone who knows them well can attest, can sometimes be where they shoot themselves in the foot. So it happens again; 'Real Talk' is MOR and lifeless, vocals placed on top of the pedestrian guitar pace, stretched out to hide a worrying lack of ideas. 'The Healing', meanwhile opens up from the tightly compact space into which the four-piece have wedged all the elements of 'Four' thus far but, unfortunately, drifts out and away into nothingness.
Then there's Kele's lyrics; not always the finest of wordsmiths, he's still prone to dropping the odd clunker, notably on 'Kettling' where he recalls the London riots of last year like a defiant sixth former, shouting "as the cameras take pictures of us we just laugh". As a politically-motivated track, it possesses roughly the same depth as Muse's hastily flung together diatribes against The Man. However, considering where Bloc Party were - careering out of creative control, pushing in different directions and rapidly losing interest in themselves as well as each other - and where they are now - functioning tightly as a unit again, with each member seemingly having an equal share of the creative process - Four is a welcome return, one which doesn't match the focused quality of their early output, but an album that at least shows they're starting to remember again what it was that made them so good in the first place.
Simon Jay Catling
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