Kelechukwu “Kele” Okereke, charismatic frontman of the noughties’ British indie-dance band Bloc Party, might envy Hot Chip. That outfit will release an album. Its members then go off and do their own thing. They reunite. But, mostly, Hot Chip seem to have fun. Alas, after 2005’s classic debut Silent Alarm, Bloc Party became increasingly defined by internal discord.
The group took two portentous hiatuses – and their last album, 2012’s rock Four, sounded corrosive. Meanwhile, Okereke established himself as a cred house DJ. And he launched a solo career with The Boxer. Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong wearily told BBC 6 Music that Okereke was “an insatiable workaholic”. Tong exited in 2013, followed by bass-player Gordon Moakes. The banquet was apparently over.
But, unexpectedly, in 2016 we have a fresh incarnation of Bloc Party and, in HYMNS, a cerebrally epic fifth album – as previewed live in Australia over summer. The highly conceptual HYMNS will impress – if you stop comparing it to the angsty old Bloc Party. Indeed, Okereke & Co are proclaiming it “a rebirth”.
In some ways, Bloc Party simply reverted to its founders – Okereke and lead guitarist Russell Lissack. However, the dynamic has changed with new bassist Justin Harris, from Portland’s cult Menomena, and twentysomething drummer Louise Bartle (who does not play on HYMNS). Okereke and Lissack would have been wise to introduce another vehicle over Bloc Party 2.0 – kinda like their historic foes from Oasis, the Gallagher brothers…
Still, HYMNS is Okereke’s vision. Paradoxically, it’s a secular spiritual album. Though Okereke grew up in a “super-Catholic” Nigerian family, the singer/rhythm guitarist has stressed that he isn’t devout – 2007’s imploring hit The Prayer aside.
Moreover, HYMNS doesn’t signify an “epiphany” – so, chill, atheists. In fact, Okereke challenged himself to make a (post)modern album thematising reverence and rapture on hearing writer Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) discuss the decline of religious art.
The songs on HYMNS explore what Okereke deems sacred: love, sex, nature, life and highs (Different Drugs). As such, it’s his most revelatory – and romantic – project. Okereke has never emoted so soulfully. The one obviously churchy trope comes on Exes – it’s elevated by a male choir.
Otherwise, musically, HYMNS finds Bloc Party experimenting as they transcend both indiedom and the underground bass house of Okereke’s 2014 LP Trick. The lead single (and opener) The Love Within, crisply sung by Okereke, has The Wombats’ disco-pop sensibility – only it’s wonkier. Lissack, Okereke’s adept facilitator, ingeniously created synth sounds with guitar pedals. It even has some dubstep wub-wub-wub.
Okereke captures the euphoria of rave culture on the beautifully building Only He Can Heal Me, with a chanted chorus – and subliminal Afrobeat rhythms. After all, God is a DJ. Many tracks recall Massive Attack’s architecturally programmed dubtronica or, yes, the prog-house Faithless at their most downtempo – albeit with a sweep of Daniel Lanois’ art-rock.
The spaciously spare Fortress is unusually intimate – and erotic, Okereke singing falsetto. Notably, HYMNS is produced by Tim Bran (of Dreadzone) and Roy Kerr – the duo who guided London Grammar’s understated If You Wait.
HYMNS has its lapses. The Good News, a foray into twangy, gospelly Americana, is utterly unconvincing – Bloc Party channelling Kings Of Leon just too incongruously weird. And, while HYMNS is “a rebirth”, it’s also a resurrection. Will fans keep the faith?
HYMNS is out January 29, grab a pre-order here.