In February 2005, four Londoners put out a record that’d change not only their lives, but also the whole indie scene in the UK. ‘Silent Alarm’ might not have been Bloc Party’s best album – indeed, at the time of its release I was convinced second LP, ‘A Weekend In The City’, was its superior – but it was their most important statement: a seismic charge that shook the very foundations of what “indie” had become by the mid-2000s.
Signs of singular wits and compelling intelligence had crept into the mainstream the year before, beside the throwback riffs echoing post-punk characteristics through to a new generation of skinny-leg kids: NME listed debuts by The Futureheads and Franz Ferdinand amongst its best of 2004, alongside rather more rote fare from Razorlight, Kasabian and (oh dear, how embarrassing) The Ordinary Boys. But no band of back then had quite merged consistently compulsive songwriting with lyrical reflections not only on the wider state of societal unrest, but also focusing on the raw emotions of the self, and how they affect one’s appreciation of the everyday.
‘Silent Alarm’, released by Wichita Recordings, was the necessary wake-up call, its title implying subtlety, under-the-radar impact but its truth very much a palpable breaching of the parapet of laddish indie slobber, and a retort to the saccharine slop that served as British rock’s more sensitive side: you know, Starsailor and Keane and all that shite.
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Sometimes frontman Kele Okereke’s lyricism can seem completely mystifying, but the overall tone it lends proceedings is never in doubt: this is an unhappy album, even when it’s claiming that “we’re gonna win this”, as it does repeatedly on ‘Price Of Gasoline’. ‘Positive Tension’, part of a double-A single with ‘So Here We Are’, ducks into darkness, as the tedium of its subject’s lives can’t be broken, despite the woman’s assertion that she’s “gonna make it happen”. That “something glorious” will likely never come to pass.
Okereke’s poetic heart attracted academics to draw parallels between him and Sylvia Plath, writer John Sutherland picking up on comparably “jagged, surprising imagery”. Certainly to visualise some of these words in one’s mind’s eye is to be taken on a rollercoaster tour of a 20-something’s internalised turmoil, as they adjust to adulthood proper – living alone, attempting to earn enough to avoid being left behind, while global leaders threaten to torch the planet – but none of this would leave a lasting impression without the forceful musicianship carrying it.
In Russell Lissack (who’s since played with Ash), Gordon Moakes and Matt Tong, Bloc Party had a triumvirate of powerfully identifiable players bouncing off each other – throughout ‘Silent Alarm’, not one of these supremely talented sorts (lead guitar, bass/synths and drums respectively) skips into a spotlight. Dominance is shared, split even, right down to Okereke’s wordplay – when it gets acerbic, so the riffs about it grow in edginess, sharpened and glinting, ready to cut through the band’s alleged peers.
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Because they had them – Franz and The Futureheads, obviously, but also Art Brut, The Rakes, British Sea Power, Maxïmo Park and more. There was something in the air, spiking the water found in the backstage sweatboxes of the country’s breaking-bands circuit. “Angular” riffs were prevalent, the influence of acts like Talking Heads and Gang Of Four evident in acts aplenty graduating from new-band pages to top-10 hits.
But what made ‘Silent Alarm’ stand out – it’s the one album of its type, and era, to make Clash’s recent 100 greatest albums of its lifetime, at 23 – was the reliability of its pop sensibilities. It never slackens pace, it never dallies, always accelerating. Songs like ‘This Modern Love’ and ‘So Here We Are’ adopt a more sincerely heartfelt stance in comparison to the politicised shredding of ‘Helicopter’, but they’re no slow-dances.
‘So Here We Are’ is joyous, more hands-aloft than slipped around a partner, and one of this album’s rare instances of optimism: “I figured it out… I can see again.” Don’t get comfortable, though, as the very next song snaps the listener from a state of unlikely contentment on an album characterised by unrest, as ‘Luno’ leaps into life. “And your nose is bleeding / You deserve it / You’ve been lying to me.” Charming.
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‘So Here We Are’
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The prominent pop nous of ‘Silent Alarm’ is why it can still be mined for dancefloor-fillers today. The indie clubs of 2015 are, inevitably, very different from those of 2005 – back then, when I’d frequent White Heat and Silver Rocket and whatever was happening down the Buffalo Bar when I was bored of the Wetherspoon behind it, I was regularly out in That London; these days, I barely turn a radio on – but I’m fairly sure that ‘Banquet’ and ‘She’s hearing Voices’ can get an 18-year-old cutting some rug just as effortlessly as it would the drunk me at the next wedding I’m forced along to. “So underrated!” says Kele, but he knew, he knew.
It was at the Buffalo Bar that I first saw Bloc Party, so many years ago, before this album – but even then, from behind the decks, their potential could be felt in the air. It got into the sweat on the walls, trickling to the floor. For a few years, every act that stepped where Bloc Party once had would feel their influence, creeping into their nervous systems: Foals, certainly, shared some DNA, likewise The Maccabees and Bombay Bicycle Club. You could hear them, bands like them, skipping north along Holloway Road: “I’m on fire!” In hindsight, I hope it was a just metaphorical burn they were feeling.
NME’s album of the year for 2005, ahead of Arcade Fire’s ‘Funeral’ (Spotlight special), ‘Silent Alarm’ brought its makers to the attention of award bodies the world over. It earned a Mercury Prize shortlisting, a nomination at the MTV Europe Music Awards, and won gongs at the NME and PLUG Awards. The record is regularly regarded as one of the very best indie albums of its decade, and long will that continue – after all, it’s not like any new albums are yet to come out in 2005, is it?
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Words: Mike Diver
Related: Write On: Kele Okereke
(For what it’s worth) Bloc Party online