It’s the end of 2007. British post-punks Bloc Party are coming off a gruelling tour; uncomfortable in each other’s company and jaded from playing the same set list made up of the majority of their second album A Weekend in the City. They’ve spent the past year listening to critics mourning the immediacy and energy of their acclaimed debut Silent Alarm while performing songs that have been described as lumpy and over-produced. It’s a crucial time for a band hailed at the time of their breakthrough as one of the most exciting prospects for the new millennium.
“I’d be lying if I said that we didn’t come off the last tour feeling completely knackered and sick of the sight of one another,” drummer Matt Tong says. “It did get quite tense towards the end and the last thing we thought about was getting straight back into the studio again. After a period of reflection though we came to the point where we had ideas and were willing to come together on them. I think from stepping back a bit after the last tour and album, we’ve discovered what it means to be a group again.”
After surviving what could be described as a backlash, Bloc Party regrouped and delivered their third album, Intimacy, at the end of last year with barely any warning. Released online just two days after its announcement, Intimacy went straight for the jugular. Shorn of the extravagance and indulgence of its predecessor, the album crashed into the unprepared consciousness with a hedonistic mixture of wailing sirens, samplers and dance-inflected rhythms. Suddenly all the talk was of reinvention.
“Songs like Mercury and Biko could be considered to be a departure but having said that, I think songs like The Prayer on A Weekend in the City hint at that particular direction,” says Tong. “Intimacy does represent an evolution in a sense. I think this is the most important record we’ve made in terms of wanting to try and get somewhere else.”
Dropping such an album with little or no warning could have backfired, Tong admits, but rather being too much too fast, Intimacy has reinvigorated the band, its fan base and the interest surrounding their progress. The result being a new enthusiasm both on stage and off it.
“The positive side of having a Christmas break between releasing the record and touring has given people time to really connect with the album so we’re seeing quite an instant reaction,” Tong adds. “The response has been quite immediate with the new songs. They’re quite upbeat. We’re quite lucky that the people who come to our shows are normally quite nerdy about what we do and really get into it.”
The audience at the Ancienne Belgique on the first of Bloc Party’s two sold-out nights in Brussels certainly agree. The AB isn’t only full of people but fit to burst with an excess of nervous energy. And the electricity isn’t only being generated by the hugely expectant crowd. Once Bloc Party take the stage, it’s clear something potentially powerful is brewing here.
Despite his admission that his knee is in a state of disrepair due to a nightclub incident, singer Kele Okereke leads his band into a set built on highly strung tunes and a barely concealed eagerness to please. The singer hops around like someone has attached electrodes to his good leg and rips through the opening One Month Off with frantic glee. The crowd find their voices early with Hunting for Witches but to create a perfect storm tonight, Bloc Party are going to need a bit more help. “I hear you guys have a reputation for being very cool,” Kele says during one pause. “Let’s have none of that, eh? Who wants to go crazy?” The entire auditorium volunteers as one to go to the next level and joyous bedlam ensues as the band launches into Talons.
The focus for most of the night understandably rests on the charismatic Okereke, a man who seems unaffected and genuinely relaxed between songs – he even conducts a concerned search for the owner of a wallet which ends up on stage. This is, however, in direct contrast to the ball of boundless, contorted energy he becomes during hell-for leather offerings such as Helicopter, Song for Clay (Disappear Here) and Uniform. But it would be a crime to dismiss the other members as his backing band. The slight frame of Russell Lissack barely seems equipped to carry his guitar let alone strangle the kind of sounds he manages to get out of it, while Gordon Moakes tethers the rising squall with tight basslines before swapping guitar for samplers on the likes of Mercury, Ares and Flux. Meanwhile drummer Tong soon sheds his considered, studious appearance along with his shirt in favour of full-on, wig-out drum abandon which cracks on at a superhuman pace for most of the night.
At times slapdash and at others indulgent on record, Bloc Party continue to have the live tools to deliver on what is occasionally a vision lacking discipline and focus when given far too many toys to play with in the studio. They may have added an experimental, electronic edge to their new material but on stage, Bloc Party essentially remain a compact guitar outfit delivering blistering post-punk rock at breakneck speed without a missed beat.
Originally Published in The Bulletin Magazine, Brussels (www.thebulletin.be)