Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The NME Awards Tour ft. Bloc Party - Art-Punk Nostalgia Helps Cement Delightful Return - O2 Academy Leeds, 08.02.16

There’s always been an undercurrent of malevolence underneath the desperate art-punk cries of indie stalwarts Bloc Party. They walked a fine line, with the darkly psychosexual worlds of Bowie and Suede on one side and the post-punk dancefloor-spite of Franz Ferdinand, never particularly straying from the template initially.  Debut effort Silent Alarm was acclaimed, with strong commercial success behind it too. The band never really strayed too far from its comfort zone, bar some experimentation here and there. They remained a resolutely mid-noughties example of classic indie-punk, laced with a poison that struck out wildly.

Which makes fifth album and comeback record Hymns an intriguing proposition, a collection of alternative-dance songs that instead of snarling, cleave to a quasi-religious palate of forgiveness. It comes in the wake of the band’s lineup overhaul – only Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack remain, resulting in a fresh rhythm section of drummer Louise Bartle and bassist Justin Harris – and serves to reinforce that Bloc Party Mk.2 are a different beast from their predecessors.

Eoin Loveless, of Drenge, live in 2016. Courtesy of Tim Gray.
Their stop in Leeds, in the headline slot of the NME Awards Tour, is the first chance for many fans to hear new cuts, with the album barely a week released, to a disappointing commercial reception. They have to wait through three other acts first, of varying quality. Rising grime artist Bugzy Malone delivers some wry asides and solid rhymes in his lyrics – but his entire catalogue appears to rest upon two different backing tracks. Rat Boy, real name Jordan Cardy, delivers the next Cheeky Chappie-based indie-punk act filled with social commentary, though he adds an intriguing electronica element at points to an otherwise rough-by-numbers performance.

Drenge, a band who were once rather drunk on stage in support of Peace in this city, have tightened up considerably since the last time. Receiving initial large exposure in an MP’s resignation letter, the Loveless brothers have added a bass to their primal squall of guitars and drums, resulting in a considerably meatier melodic quality to their sound. Recent cuts The Woods and Never Awake do themselves justice whilst a closing one-two of Fuckabout and Let’s Pretend develops into a feedback-drenched progressive grunge masterclass, executed with professional precision.

Bloc Party’s performance, by contrast, is jubilant and well-executed, but falls prey on occasion to a muted solemnity. They elect to open with the synth-gospel of new album track Only He Can Heal Me, Okereke half-whispering his vocals into the swirl around him. It’s a tender pleading line that works well, but casts a continuing shadow over the rest of their seventy-minute set. Later tracks Different Drugs and Into the Earth are cut from similar cloth and an abundance of tracks from Hymns in general seems top-heavy in a setlist that eschews several of the band’s largest hits (the absence of Positive Tension and Flux is noticeable in a lull of back-to-back new songs).

Kele Okereke of Bloc Party, live in 2016. Courtesy of Getty Images.
But not all of their finest cuts are absent and Bloc Party clearly relish being back, bouncing through Mercury, Song for Clay (Disappear Here) and Banquet in the opening stretch alone with a childish sense of glee at his songs of punkish energy and blackly-tinted spirit. The band is well rehearsed too, near note-perfect in their faithful renditions of a gorgeous Waiting for the 7.18, weaving together with a surprising elegance, given a previous penchant for blunt delivery. Their sound mix unfortunately meanders all over the place, with Octopus rendered incomprehensible in the wings, but a stellar light-show and a triumphant closing number in Hymns lead single The Love Within signs them off in style.

They return with another new one – the after-hours slow ballad of Fortress, a song that blends icy synths with ham-fisted lyricisms. But their final power trio – the angry party-starter Helicopter, the beautifully aching This Modern Love and the punk-rave of Ratchet – trigger delirious nostalgia-based dancing and singing to Okereke’s delight. Perhaps Bloc Party may no longer find themselves the commercial behemoth they were a decade ago – but there’s definitely still a nostalgic warmth to them in their return that seems genuine enough to hope that Mk.2 is here to stay.

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