Fresh start or swan song? In the wake of BLOC PARTY‘s fifth studio album Hymns many fans of the British indie rock heroes are not quite sure what to expect from the follow-up to 2012’s Four. Following the release of 2013’s EP The Nextwave Sessions the band found themselves at a crossroad. Drummer Matt Tong just left the band and later on bassist Gordon Moakes would quit his job as well, leaving leading man Kele Okereke and founding member Russell Lissack at a point where at least the singer considered dissolving the band after one furious and successful decade. Somehow it felt like the natural conclusion back then… only that it wasn’t.
Now, BLOC PARTY return with new music and new line-up. Hymns is the first record to feature former MENOMENA member Justin Harris on bass and newcomer Louise Bartle on the drums. NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION already got a first impression of some of the new material during the band’s recent comeback show in Berlin. Now, we got the chance to listen to Hymns for the first time and as kind as we are we’d like to share our initial thoughts with you before the record officially arrives on January 29, 2016.
‘The Love Within’
By now you should be familiar with the album’s first single which also opens Hymns. A lot of people criticized The Love Within as being too poppy for a BLOC PARTY song but let’s face it – the band previously also released tracks like One More Chance and Flux who are as pop as pop can be. The grooving piece clearly lacks the rough energy of previous BLOC PARTY album openers in the tradition of Song For Clay or Ares but it sets the right path for what’s about to follow.
‘Only He Can Heal Me’
Okereke’s spiritual relationship with love and music remains one of the key elements on the fifth BLOC PARTY album. In a press release he explains: ‘I started to think, if I was going to make music that had a spiritual dimension, that was sacred to me and to the things that I held important, how would I do it?’ This song might be the answer as it sets the gospel idea into a more contemporary environment. It’s a tender ode to Okereke’s lover as he sings: ‘Only he can heal me with his touch’ while unfolding its melody on a tender electronic beat and house piano.
We continue in a more spherical territory as Kele sings this mid-tempo ballad over the delicate melody of a rhodes piano. Russell’s tries out some different guitar play on this one, leaving his well-known territory. The laidback atmosphere of the album goes on as we’re still waiting for a first potential rock song.
‘The Good News’
The second single from Hymns is more guitar-driven as BLOC PARTY are heading for a more blues-rock sounding style. It sounds way different than previous released by the band but fits pretty well do the themes and sound of the album. One thing you notice about The Good News especially is the fact that Kele’s vocals sound a bit different and way more soulful than on previous records.
This one is a quite reduced and almost ambient-like ballad in the tradition of Signs. It heavily features Kele’s gentle falsetto singing as he floats on a subtle synthetic environment. This one sounds unlike anything BLOC PARTY have released so far but more like a leftover track from the last SOHN album.
Different Drugs turned out to be one of the highlights in the recent BLOC PARTY live set and indeed, it marks one of the highlights on Hymns. A hypnotic and dreamy beat carries Okereke through a sea of synthesizer sounds while Lissack provides a more discreet guitar performance of his usual style in the background. There’s a lovely build-up going on during the song that really works over the course of these five and a half minutes.
‘Into The Earth’
Following the previously more electronic tracks, Into The Earth marks the return of the more guitar-based BLOC PARTY as the band delivers a melancholic piece in the style of tracks like Lean or Plans. ‘Into the earth our bodies will go’ sings Okereke while his band members present a sweet piece of indie-rock that is – compared to former material this one is more on the quality level of a B-side, it feels.
‘My True Name’
Okay, by now we’ve officially given up to expect a fast-paced rock tune in the tradition of Helicopter, Hunting For Witches or One Month Off on Hymns. My True Name is another well-produced ballad, a sweet and personal song that underlines the intimate love themes of the album. Potentially a grower.
Starting with the familiar guitar-sound from The Love Within (the one that sounds like a synthesizer but is told through Russell that it actually isn’t) Virtue might be the only attempt on Hymns to deliver something in the style of a (somehow) faster rock tune. Harris delivers a really funky bassline and its definitely one of the few piece with hit potential.
The band performed this one as well in the past. It’s another more guitar-based ballad with a melancholic undertone and quite personal. To underline the whole Hymns concept the band now also presents a choir in the background, although it’s not comparable to the one on Zephyrus from 2008’s Intimacy album.
The final piece on the record sees Okereke once again performing over a tender electronic setting, just like on Fortress. The music teases a build-up in the background that just won’t arrive in the course of this track. Well, that assumption might have been a bit too easy anyway. Like a tender lullaby the singer states: ‘Raise your glass, my old friend as we both know this is the end’, delivering a reflective and maybe even prophetic analysis of whatever might follow this.
Of course, a first listening is way too early to give a specific verdict on whether Hymns is a great or horrible record or somewhere in-between. But one thing gets quite clear after a few minutes: This is a way different BLOC PARTY album, especially due to the fact that it’s way more reflective and introspective than previous releases. But it also features some of Okereke’s most honest and intimate work so far. The rawer and more urgent side of the band is barely sensible, especially following the furious Four. This is definitely a different band and it will be up to the fans and followers to decide whether this new direction is one to follow or not.