BLOC PARTY: SILENT ALARM ****
LAST FEBRUARY, people like me were writing about how Franz Ferdinand had changed the landscape of Scottish pop music. How parochial that feels now. A year on, with a Mercury Prize, sales of two million and counting and, as of this week, two Brit Awards, Glasgow’s most wanted are well on to phase two of their reign - leading a new wave of confident, ambitious British guitar bands which, if you believe more excitable observers, could recreate the heady, mid-1990s buzz of BritPop.
Following in Franz’s wake are the likes of Kaiser Chiefs, The Others, Maximo Park, The Futureheads, Razorlight, Kasabian and, until things went belly up, The Libertines. And, just as BritPop was a broad enough church to include the likes of Massive Attack and Portishead, you could, if you felt like it, rope in Keane, The Streets, Goldfrapp, Jamelia and Joss Stone to bolster your case (Q did exactly this last month, Stone and Franz’s Alex Kapranos sharing space on a magazine cover celebrating new British pop).
In Pete Doherty and Kate Moss we even have an elegantly wasted rock couple ripe to recreate that Vanity Fair cover shot of Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit. Franz Ferdinand themselves are in the privileged position of being both the new Suede (cool, zeitgeist-shaping scenesters) and the new Oasis (all-conquering, flag-waving people’s band). Blessed with taste, generosity and influence, they have the power to shape a whole movement in their own image, with any band they endorse instantly thrust under a glaring spotlight. Right now, that spotlight is shining most strongly on four bookish Londoners called Bloc Party.
If Bloc Party are frequently dubbed "the new Franz Ferdinand", this is partly because the two bands are friends, but mostly to do with timing - like Franz, they are releasing their first album in February, fresh from playing on the NME’s annual new bands tour. Musically, they have little in common beyond a liking for minimal, repetitive guitar melodies possibly borrowed from old Wire and Neu records.
That said, the above scenario is an interesting context in which to judge Silent Alarm. It’s an exhilarating, hugely confident debut, suggesting a band with a future as bright as Franz Ferdinand’s. But it’s also a dark, troubled creature, suggesting a band who would fit uncomfortably into any national celebration. The uneasy mood is established right from the off. Like Eating Glass thunders along, its unrelenting drum rolls recalling Joy Division and its howled, gloomy vocal (opening line: "it’s so cold in this house") reminiscent of The Cure. Straight afterwards is Helicopter, an attack on George W Bush and the Iraq war.
If that makes your heart sink (and it should, because pop mixed with politics almost always leads to crass, empty sloganeering), the good news is that Helicopter has enough poetry and ambivalence to convince you it is sincere rather than opportunistic. "Why can’t you be more European?" sings Kele Okereke succinctly. "Bastard child of guilt and shame." As political pop goes, the song is certainly more eloquent than Give Peace a Chance.
Helicopter is the only time it’s raised so obviously, but the current political climate casts a long shadow over Silent Alarm. It is an album full of concern and gloomy - if generally veiled - predictions about war and environmental disaster. "We promised the world we’d tame it," Okereke sings on The Pioneers, "what were we hoping for?"
The next track, Price of Gasoline, continues in the same vein. "I can tell you how this ends. We’re going to win this with spades and truncheons, guns and trowels. That is how the war will be won. Just swat the fly." If there’s any doubt that this is bitterly ironic, the driving guitar riff will put you straight (if the line "the ghosts are here, red white and blue" hadn’t already).
If this makes Bloc Party sound like the early, fiery work of Manic Street Preachers, that’s not quite right. They are not that self-conscious. There are no clever-clever literary references here, no manifesto (beyond a general sense that one should think and take responsibility for one’s actions). They are not defined by anger or self-loathing. Instead, what you get are the everyday concerns of four outward-looking, reasonably articulate young men, whose first concern is to make beautiful sounds.
And on that score, Silent Alarm delivers. Current single So Here We Are aspires to the same widescreen canvas as Radiohead’s Street Spirit, as does the slow-burning Blue Light. Both show off one of Bloc Party’s greatest weapons - heavenly, haunting harmonies that sound like a chorus of monks.
What the band conspicuously don’t have is a Take Me Out (or, indeed, a Yellow or a Run): the killer pop single that will unquestionably take them from indie darlings to mainstream stars. Maybe that’ll be on the stunning second album - which is surely on its way, since Bloc Party have far too many good ideas to be crammed into one. Meanwhile, the closest things here are Banquet and This Modern Love, whose sharp but unfussy guitar playing and big choruses recall XTC or even Joe Jackson. That said, neither song is in any hurry to get to the hook. Atmosphere is the thing.
And it’s the atmosphere that’s so interesting. BritPop started out as a wave of highly successful, very British sounding guitar bands, but it was, of course, really about national mood, the firm conviction that two decades of Tory government were about to end, and a young generation’s belief that something better and different was about to come along. It was about the kind of positive national pride that only comes with national hope.
If Franz Ferdinand could have been a BritPop band - it’s easy to picture them alongside Blur, Pulp and Oasis - it’s partly because they’re pretty much apolitical (so far, anyway). They are about tunes, sex, swagger and smiles, and everyone is invited to their party. Bloc Party, by contrast, feel very much of the moment. They are worried about war and the environment, fearful of the future, and - despite their name - in no mood to unreservedly celebrate anything. The question is: will this work for or against them? Other new bands are funnier, cooler, more charming, more blunt, and better dressed. If Bloc Party are the ones to break through, though, that BritPop party may be some way off after all.
Fiona Shepherd is away