Retro-Review: Silent Alarm

The early 2000s were a significant time for me personally and it helped that the music of that era was very much in tune with my developing taste. I had grown beyond the all-consuming need to listen to every piece of music to have come out of New Orleans in the last 100 years and was widening my pallet to discover the staples of rocknroll. You see, I hated music until I was about 14. My family were all musicians and I was more concerned with reading and writing. That changed obviously but I kind of skipped all the traditional stuff you’re supposed to get into as a young teen so my late teens early 20s was about discovering how much I loved the Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, Cream, etc etc. We were also coming out of the guitar heavy era of the 90s which, despite living through and hearing, I would only learn to appreciate much later. As such, the music of the 2000s was clearly trying to move away from the 60s and 70s revival and influence of the 90s and heading towards the now punishingly endless and saturated 80s revival that has now lasted longer than the 80s itself. I hated the music of the 80s the first time round and I still hate it (and its contemporary imitators) now. This is all to say, 2000 to 2006 was a time of really interesting innovation and change in all areas but especially music that I didn’t notice at the time. Therefore, I’m going to be going back over the albums that heavily influenced me from that era and looking at them from an undoubtedly nostalgic perspective but hopefully offering some context that may help people appreciate a few forgotten classics or undiscovered gems.

Released in 2005, I bought Bloc Party’s first album on record not long after my father passed away while my parents were in the middle of a divorce and I had just come out of my first serious relationship and began another. I had been living in my first flat away from home for the last two years too and was about to turn 21. In short, I was a bit of a fucking mess. It didn’t feel like it at the time and I’m still impressed at how I handled everything but yeah, it was a really really really weird time. Anyway, I had seen and heard little of Bloc Party but for an early appearance on TV and hearing a song that wasn’t a single that sounded genuinely different to a lot of stuff around at the time. I bought the album on a whim in Canterbury and gave it a listen. It didn’t immediately hit me how much I loved the album. A few tracks stood out and Side A is still superior to Side B but generally I thought “Not bad”. But I kept coming back to it and it wasn’t necessarily because of the music.

I didn’t get into my, now Career, Poetry until I was about 26. I still hated it at this time. Poetry drooled, music ruled. It’s only now I realise my taste for intelligent lyricists in music did not simply come from my love of good story writing. The fact that Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Ben Folds, and so on, were primo influences on my own song writing should have tipped me off to the fact poetry may well have been my calling after all, and its that love for deep, intelligent and unique lyrics that kept me coming back to Silent Alarm. Listening back to Silent Alarm today I am struck by the profundity of Kele Okereke’s lyrics and sub-consciously must have been similarly affected the first time I heard it. His ability to zero-in on fine details when painting vignettes, combined with a restraint that never pushes the lyrics into melodrama and covering a diverse range of topics is really quite astonishing for someone who was only 21 when he wrote the words. This plainness of language but intricacy of emotion is exemplified in the song This Modern Love which still remains Bloc Party’s best track and Okereke’s crowning lyrical achievement that he has matched but, arguably, never bettered. The lyrics match the angular sound of the band perfectly but are equally what lifts the album from good to great. Okereke’s delivery is key to this too. His voice is admittedly an acquired taste but hearing a brazenly London accent in a sea of American sound-alikes was truly unique at the time and predicted the rise of this kind of vocalist, soon seen in Kate Nash/Lily Allen and their peers. However Okereke’s direct performance combined with his direct lyrics is wonderful and still sounds as fresh to this day.

The music itself should have predicted better things to come but its best parts were abandoned later by the band and ignored by the people they influenced. Their producer, Paul Epworth, essentially coached the band through the album, favouring live performances being recorded, than endless layering. The songs were written during the studio time and apparently grew out of ‘jams’ typically prompted by a drum beat. Epworth is smart about focussing on this element in the production. The sound of the album, and its lasting appeal is in the marriage of genres that the band and Epworth accomplish. Despite being a twin guitar band Epworth focusses on boosted bass and drum sounds and adds top-end flourishes like chiming bells. What you end up with is an angular ‘Rock’ band akin to the Talking Heads sound of the 80s but combined with a distinctly techno or ‘Club’ sound. This blend is astonishingly successful and has equally not really been tried since. Franz Ferdinand, who were also leaning heavily on the jangly, angular twin-guitar sound, came out a year before and combined with an equally non-American sounding vocalist, Bloc Party could easily have been deemed a knock off and while they were clearly both being influenced by the same late 70s early 80s nu-wave stock, Epworth drags Silent Alarm into genuinely original sonic territory that hasn’t been touched since thanks to his focus on the sounds that appeal to listeners on recreational substances while the band gives the tracks a depth to the musical and lyrical content. In an age where producer is king, I long for these days where the producer produced the artist not everything about an album. Epworth assists but doesn’t overwhelm, pushes but not over the edge. Producers today seem to treat the artist as the face candy while they do literally everything else for an ablum. Silent Alarm is a Block Party album not a Paul Epworth album.

Their ‘look’ did a lot to endear them to me too. While Russell Lissack seems desperate to be considered the next Jonny Greenwood (complete with floppy hair and fun guitar pedals), Matt Tong and Kele Okereke offered something few guitar bands did at the time, prior, or since: non-White Dudes. Specifically, non-White Dudes playing proto-typically ‘White Boy’ music. A guitarist friend at the time made the casually racist statement that he was disappointed Okereke didn’t sound “more Black” and, sadly, I don’t think he was alone in that. But I was delighted to find a genre dominated by angsty white boys like me finally diversifying. Seeing a band that was (finally) more racially diverse that played diverse music genuinely ground breaking at the time, another reason I took to them. They also seemed to have fun on stage, particularly Tong. As a skinny, gangly dude I identified with a skinny, gangly band that was aggressive on stage and played fast tempo tunes. In every way this band was original and enjoyable.

Finding an album that was enjoyable yet complex with equally complex lyrics about things that I was feeling at the time, meant I was the prime target for this album and it was a gift that kept giving. Its influence on me can’t be understated. Combined with Blur and Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party is why I love Telecasters so much. The band were what I needed and what I wanted more of. Sadly that was not forthcoming. The second album A Weekend in the City is lyrically as interesting and attuned as its predecessor but much more indulgent, similar to its music in that respect. AWITC has its moments but I only enjoy half the tracks on it. By album three I had completely lost interest. To say nothing of the fact that Okereke beefed up, was fired from the band, was rehired, then changed the entire line up of the band later on, I found it hard to continue to identify with a group that seemed so estranged from each other and the sound, I felt, had made their first outing so damn good. Silent Alarm remains a largely forgotten classic to this day. Despite universal praise I never hear singles or tracks from it anywhere, it never features on ‘best of’ lists and they only garnered real acclaim in the US after AWITC. Their debut deserves reappraisal, especially for its lyrics which are as fresh and intelligent as they were in 2004 when they were written. Not treating your audience like idiots, allowing restraint and a certain level of ambiguousness is not something I hear in pop music of the last 10 years and that’s disappointing. Silent Alarm has this in spades though and it’s a belter of an album.

Standout tracks for me are the slow growing opener Like Eating Glass that sets out the stall for the album with a fantastic chorus but with plenty of atmosphere and lyrical occlusion. This Modern Love and So Here We Are should have been the blueprint for 21st Century love songs but their complexity and nuance has since been lost to the crushing obviousness of X Factor winners. Okereke’s Lyrics on both are genuine poetry and should be better remembered. She’s Hearing Voices is another lyrically intricate and arresting track but is probably the only time the music matches, and even overpowers, them, building to a guitar solo that I’ve been trying to emulate for nearly 15 years in its free form, scattershot melody. It’s as close as the band get to ROCK and is all the better for its restraint. The first 7 tracks of the album is it at its best but even thereafter it maintains its mood and never slouches lyrically or musically. A unique album, that fits both as a Club Night set of anthems, and an introspective, At-Home-With-Your-Headphones-On hole to fall down. Finding it as an angsty 20-year-old, churning, mess of emotions and confusion it was a winner and consequently might not be for everyone but I recommend giving it a go, especially if you don’t like their later stuff. Give it a couple of spins to make up your mind and I think you’ll be silently alarmed.