There was a moment in 2013, after their last pre-hiatus show at Latitude Festival that year, where the future wasn’t looking too peachy for Bloc Party. Shrouded by rumours that the band quite simply weren’t getting onfollowing the departure of drummer Matt Tong in the summer, Bloc Party went on an indefinite hiatus with fans persistently questioning its limits. The second well-publicised hiatus in four years (their first break following the tour for 2008’s ‘Intimacy’), it looked as though it could well be over for the indie-rock four-piece.
Though front man Kele Okereke aimed to quell reports with the promise that a new release was in the works, the announcement of the ‘inevitable’ departure of bassist Gordon Moakes in March this year suggested his optimism to be short-lived, again putting into question the band’s outlook. Cue the admission of two new members to the Bloc Party set – bassist Justin Harris, previously of Portland experimental duo Menomena, and 21-year-old Louise Bartle, discovered as founding members Okereke and Russell Lissack frantically scoured for drummers on YouTube.
Having finally overcome a tumultuous two years for the band, Okereke et al. return with a fifth album, ‘Hymns’, due for release this month. We caught up with guitarist Russell Lissack to discuss. “It’s good to be back,” he remarks, with a demeanour seemingly much more positive than in previous interviews. It’s a surprising feat given what the band have been through that Bloc Party have risen again, but Lissack denies he and Okereke ever felt it was ‘the end’. “I think it was important that we had a break after touring for so long, but it wasn’t ever a case of ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
This comes as a relief to the band’s fans, which have eagerly anticipated the follow-up to 2012’s ‘Four’ (defined by the band as “chaotic, intense and noisy” – perhaps a subconscious indication of tensions at the time). In ‘Hymns’,Bloc Party’s sound departs from the heavy guitar-based frustration of its predecessor, instead aligning with much more of the alternative-dance and electronic influences demonstrated in Okereke’s solo material. “It was a conscious decision to try something completely different to ‘Four’. We’d been listening to a lot of electronic music since the last album and felt, in that world, musicians tend to be perhaps more creative and experimental in terms of sound and production; it’s exciting for us to try and incorporate that progressive attitude into what we [as Bloc Party] do.”
Contrasting signature Bloc Party characteristics (Okereke’s raw narrative intertwining with thoughtfully constructed melodies and an intricate drum beat) with a bold new direction, the new record shows the band look to Okereke’s origins for inspiration. While Okereke came up with the titlebefore any songs were actually written, Lissack is keen to stress that ‘Hymns’ is not a ‘religious’ album. “I think there’s a difference between religion and spirituality – this is something that certainly applies to Kele’s lyrics, which he’s taken a very spiritual approach to.”
Okereke is no longer religious himself, however it’s clear (particularly in the metaphor-dense track, ‘Only He Can Heal Me’) that spirituality is a theme that runs through the new record. In Lissack’s words, he’s “paying homage” to his beginnings in music, and integrating those experiences singing the titular ‘Hymns’ in school to his experiences in the present (Okereke’s parents are religious, and the front man has previously spoken of his religious background). Lissack adds, “Naturally I think that a person’s upbringing is always going to influence them – they’re going to look back on it and kind of see it in a different perspective.”
The courageous shift may not appeal to all fans, but then that’s always been part of Bloc Party’s charm. Having never pandered to expectations (a process Lissack describes as ‘cynical’) the band has spent their career adhering solely to their own intrinsic philosophy: making sure each record is different enough to keep things fresh and exciting for them – not their listeners. ‘Hymns’certainly demonstrates the band have explored new avenues; a vastly atmospheric album that appears only to pander to each musician’s individual talents, from Bartle’s rockier beats in ‘The Good News’ to Harris’ moodier, bass-driven ‘Virtue’.
Looking to the success of ‘The Love Within’, which has already been lauded by critics upon its release, pinned by Annie Mac as the “hottest record in the world”, it seems Bloc Party’s aesthetic is spot-on. When asked how he thinks the album will be received though, the guitarist is surprisingly modest: “it’s not for me to really speculate how people are going to receive it. As we have done our entire career, we like to progress and do something different every time, so hopefully people will on the one hand kind of expect that [with ‘Hymns’] but, on the other hand, be pleasantly surprised by quite an eclectic mix of songs. We’ve never wanted to feel like we’re repeating ourselves.”
Though the band have certainly been through a lot over the past few years, with Okereke quoted in 2013 as saying “being in Bloc Party isn’t always easy”, it seems when speaking to Lissack that the band have finally found some harmony. With the release of ‘Hymns’,Bloc Party have fought against the odds to come back with what is arguably their best work since ‘A Weekend in the City’, and proving a refreshed line-up won’t necessarily taint their successful back-catalogue.