What are you left with when you strip the social context from music born of alienation and frustration and create something sexy and cool? This time around, the latest Big Thing in rock: Britain’s Bloc Party. The heartbeat of their sound is lifted from Gang of Four, a band that more than 25 years earlier tried to explode the sonic conventions of punk, attacking what they saw as a vapid bourgeois lifestyle with their jarring chords, staccato marching-band rhythms, and snide, self-righteous lyrics. Bloc Party, like Gang of Four, adopted a vaguely political name. But musically they have the opposite impulse, taming Gang of Four’s innovations into well-crafted songs that will rock a party.
Gang of Four’s jerky rhythms were once confusing, but the lens of hip-hop and drum’n’bass has made Bloc Party’s similar syncopations a lot easier for the contemporary listener to compute; their four-on-the-floor snare-drum-and-high-hat sections evoke the hands-in-the-air rushes of house music. Bloc Party borrow the soaring melodic guitar lines of Television and sinuous noodling of New Order and the Cure to add a lushness that makes these songs sonically beautiful as well as rhythmically aggressive. Each verse and chorus add a new twist to the arrangements, often leaning heavily on old-fashioned guitar special effects like echo and phase-shifting for variety.
The lyrics, sung loosely in the heartfelt, whiny style of the Cure’s Robert Smith, are mostly about feelings: primarily (surprise) loneliness, heartbreak, angst, and alienation. Only snatches of words, such as “Like drinking poison, like eating glass” or “You are the bluest light,” stand out, creating an early-New Order-like stream of impressions rather than a narrative. Breaking almost entirely from the polemics of Gang of Four, Bloc Party make only one song overtly political.
Protest and anger are replaced by solid songwriting and a studied pose of energy, sensuality, and disaffected chic. Bloc Party are hardly the first band to recycle outsider music into a more palatable form: Elvis, the Police, and the Spice Girls, for starters, did the same. As it did with those three, the musical makeover is paying off.
Bloc Party are the band of the moment in the U.K. They issued a demo in 2003 and opened for Franz Ferdinand later that year. Signed limited-edition albums are fetching upwards of $100 on eBay. Gang of Four’s Entertainment! goes for less than $10. But those who believe “Punks not dead” take heart: Someone is trying to pawn off a Gang of Four concert poster on eBay for $100, with the description “Instant art-punk, post-punk, new-wave, punk-funk credibility with this superb original poster and ticket stub from Gang of Four’s 1981 tour.”
Bloc Party play Bowery Ballroom April 7 and 8.