Bloc Party's Silent Alarm 10 Years On

Written By Sam Murphy on 02/16/2015

BlocParty

In the ten years since Bloc Party released their iconic debut album Silent Alarm, there’s been much discussion about how indie bands fit into the music scene. Guitar music has been declared dead and then reborn a number of times, but the truth is most of the bands that occupied that spectrum of music in 2005 have since died or faded. Bloc Party’s fourth album, released in 2012, failed to excite like their past releases and their lead singer Kele Okereke has turned predominantly to electronic music.

In 2005, twee was popular. It was cool to be British, it was cool to play a high-slung guitar and it was cool to have ironic, lengthy song titles. Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, Elbow and Maximo Park thrived while the Arctic Monkeys were arriving as the coolest nerds on the planet. Of course now, Alex Turner is a high-quiffed rock god and the Arctic Monkeys have shed nearly any signs of indie tweeness that they ever had in favour of a confident, stadium-ready sound. In comparison, Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs and Maximo Park have fallen far from their perch at the top of the Alternative rock pyramid of 2005.

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At this point it’s uncertain whether we will ever hear a new Bloc Party album again. Kele has just released his sophomore record Doubt and also ruled out any possibility of a Silent Alarm anniversary tour. But 10 years ago, Silent Alarm had Bloc Party pegged as the greatest indie-rock band around at that time. Pitchfork and NME both agreed (a rare conclusion) that Silent Alarm was brilliant with the latter awarding it the title of the best album of 2005. For context’s sake, Franz Ferdinand, Arcade Fire, The White Stripes and Kaiser Chiefs also featured on that list.

The indie band was flourishing. Myspace was a thing and the song you chose to play on your myspace page was just as important as a perfectly-angled profile picture. You couldn’t just choose a pop song, you had to select a song by an artist that people would think you were cool for having known or thank you for introducing them. Bloc Party fit that brief perfectly. Silent Alarm was explicitly melodic enough to please people on the surface and deep enough for music snobs to pick apart delightedly.

Let’s not sell Silent Alarm short, however. It wasn’t just an album for people’s mySpace page. It was much more than that. It was an album that stood out in a year when the music industry was flooded with indie-rock albums. It was a confident debut that was aware of what it had to do in order to impress. It was emotional, daring, expansive and colourful. As far as Okereke was concerned, every song had to sound like a single. Every song had to hit you as hard on the first listen as on the twentieth. As Pitchfork pointed out at the time, Bloc Party’s biggest strength and weakness was that they “are like one of those people who are so well-groomed that it's hard to remember exactly what they look like.”

At the time I could measure how great a guitar-band’s melody was by how many people sung along to it when they track started. Still today if Silent Alarm is played for a room of people they will at least murmur the riffs of Banquet and Helicopter. The riffs were just as important as vocal hooks were and acted as a temptation to draw you into the songs within the first few seconds. Listen to the first few chords of This Modern Love and your heart immediately jumps into your throat.

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When the album came out NME said that it was “time for anti-heroes”. Nowadays it’s almost more likeable to be a 'freak' than to be cool, as Lady Gaga has worked so hard to champion, but back then it was very almost unheard of for a band to be so different and yet be so cool. Oasis were cool because they were abrasive rockstars. The Libertines were appealing because they were anarchic. Coldplay fit in because they were creating stadium-rock that attached them to no type of person and as a consequence made them appealing to every type of person. NME writes, “Bloc Party are to be believed in because they are a band for the whites, the blacks, the straights, the hip-hop kids, the freaks, the geeks, the emo kids, the punk-funkers, the queers and, yes, the fashionistas.”

Silent Alarm dealt with themes of sleep deprivation, consumption and love. It’s never derogatory nor does it ever brag about bad behaviour. You won’t hear anything that would require them to shout it through a megaphone, instead they’re beautifully subtle. Okereke is gay but love was dealt with as love. None of the lyrics ever confine issues to a certain type of person. Rather the songs are about the universally differing emotions of human-beings. Those that don’t suit just one type of person. As such Silent Alarm was an album for all those people that NME listed and more. Albums that manage to do that transcend genres. You didn’t need to be a fan of indie rock to appreciate Silent Alarm. This is still a quality that drawers us to albums today. As an example, Caribou’s Our Love and Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There from last year also succeeded because they dealt with love and life in a way that was both personal and universal.

It should be kept in mind that Okereke was a gay, black man operating in an indie rock world mostly dominated by white men who made their appreciation of good-looking women almost suspiciously explicit. Not that Silent Alarm needs that kind of sentiment attached to it because it’s lyrical content was so far above being petty.

Some of the above makes out that Bloc Party weren’t incredibly cool. That’s not my intention. Bloc Party were cool. They operated in a time when hype bands had to be cool. They were well-dressed, guitar-thrashing Brits who sung about sex. But they did so in their own way. There were never stories of the band stumbling out of clubs with Kate Moss nor did they try to dress with the same rock swagger or cite The Smiths as a lifelong reference when it was in vogue to do so. Okereke admitted to Uncut that he’s only been a Smiths fan for a short time. Most people are in the same boat, but rarely do they admit it. Apparently everyone owns an original copy of The Smiths on vinyl. The point is, Bloc Party were cool on their own terms. Okereke even told Pitchfork in 2006, “I feel that's important that I have some place to go that isn't on the cover of a magazine. I signed up to make music. That's it.”

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The final point to make about Bloc Party is that Silent Alarm feels fresh. Every band was referencing bands from the past. The Strokes harked loosely back to The Ramones, then every band referenced The Strokes for ten years. Kaiser Chiefs drew influences from The Beatles and The Clash. Franz Ferdinand cited ‘80s artists Orange Juice and Josef K. Silent Alarm never felt as if the band were looking back for inspiration. There was definitely signs of inspiration from the current British indie-rock scene of the time, but if there were any influences they were modern. In the same interview with Pitchfork, Okereke said, “There's too much rock that relies a fetishism or nostalgia for the old ways. That's a real enemy to music. It needs to be constantly looking forward.”

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In 2005, I flipped between Eminem, Green Day and The Black Eyed Peas because that’s what the radio told me to listen to. I loved it. But when a friend's older brother passed Silent Alarm onto us we were transfixed. It opened up a whole different world of music to us and while most of it wasn’t as good as Bloc Party’s debut it at least showed me that there was more out there than what Kyle and Jackie O were counting down on 2Dayfm.

When I listen to Franz Ferdinand, The Killers or even The White Stripes now the feeling is nostalgic. I’m not necessarily interested by how good the album is, I’m more concerned about connecting to a certain period of time where, as a teen, I was discovering more than just what commercial radio was playing. Silent Alarm goes beyond that. A good melody is timeless. Personality is timeless. Silent Alarm is still listened to today because it still sounds great amongst everything else. Yes, the guitar-oriented stylings are distinctly 2005 but it still packs an emotional punch that many bands today leave behind in order to be relevant or live up to the hype. Silent Alarm is the ultimate buzz band album because it translated past that. It became a classic rather than an early millennium throwaway.