New beginnings can be a double-edged experience. They are a weird mixture of farewells and fresh starts; one that can make you feel both emotions – nostalgia and euphoria – at the same time. It’s a bit the same with British indie-rock band BLOC PARTY. After over one decade in the industry the forthcoming fifth album Hymns (out January 29) will mark a drastic change in the perception of this band. And last night’s sold out performance of the rearranged band at Berlin’s Astra indeed proved that this is ‘the new BLOC PARTY‘ – and that they heavily struggle to come in terms with the old version.
Same, same but different
To be fair – the whole setting was a tricky one. Berlin’s Astra is not the finest venue in the city and a weak sound performance is basically the premise you have to accept. Then there’s two new members – Justin Harris on bass and keyboards, plus Louise Bartle on the drums. That fact itself makes the band look different already, especially since founding members Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack clearly spend some time at the gym recently. No, BLOC PARTY are not the skinny indie clique they used to be when Silent Alarm first hit the hearts of Thousands of kids ten years ago. They grew up and Hymns might be a direct result of this. More than ever Kele Okereke now remains the centre of it all, especially since most of the Hymns tracks deal with his spiritual relationship towards love and music. It’s not a gang anymore but on the other side his leadership was always sensible.
And, don’t get us wrong – these new tracks are clearly hinting on an interesting new album. The questionable single The Love Within turned out to be even the weakest of the six new tracks BLOC PARTY performed last night. The gospel-like opener Eden, the almost blues-rocking The Good News and especially the hypnotic trip hop groove of Different Drugs promise solid new material, although it might sound way more laid back and reflective than 2012’s aggressive Four. And the new members are doing their job pretty well aside from looking way too handsome. Still, the entire night felt like a subtle struggle between past and present, something that was also sensible in the audience reaction. Yes, they are still called BLOC PARTY but it gets harder to recognize this.
Only time will tell…
It feels as if those four musicians on stage want to carry on, opening a new chapter that takes them further away from being the ever Banquet-performing mid 00’s indie rock hype. Still, their own legacy doesn’t allow them to break free. The contradiction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ BLOC PARTY is alive and highly frustrating. Experiencing those more settled new songs directly next to Positive Tension, Song For Clay (Disappear Here) or Helicopter leaves a bittersweet taste in every fan heart. The aggressive and nervous urgency of these early days, all the sharpness and intransigence of its lyrics – they are not sensible in the band’s new material. The whole show couldn’t really decide what it wants to be. Whenever the tension got high and the mosh pit was prepared the band hit the brake with new songs. The inconsequent mixture of old and raw material (which the audience was begging for; you felt that) and those new songs nobody could have known aside from The Love Within was a really poor handling of this new scenario.
‘The group itself is still clearly looking for a balance between past and future.’
Yes, the band was in good mood and ego monster Okereke was kind and happy, clearly enjoying the performance of his new material. Even the audience was very polite and accepted the new tracks but in the end, they were all longing for those generation-shaping rock anthems that still manage to trigger the inner fight in you. The band returning for a second encore with the 2004 classic She’s Hearing Voices after the venue lights already went back on – that was something in that spirit we were hoping for. The new BLOC PARTY just might be a bit too high-handed, making us asking some existential questions: Are we even able to judge a band’s musical decisions? Shouldn’t we accept the fact that the hunger of those early years might not return? Hymns could be a really good album but it’s not one by the band you’ve come to love a few years ago. And the group itself is still clearly looking for a balance between past and future, especially during their current live shows. Maybe a name change would have been wiser. Time will tell if BLOC PARTY could become a band again, for now it just feels weird. But that’s a thing those new beginnings always have in common.