Sound — 5
Even though Bloc Party's debut album, 2005's "Silent Alarm," was one of the few albums to capture the zeitgeist of the British post-punk revival scene, frontman Kele Okereke was always looking to expand from that initial sound. The band's follow-up record, 2007's "A Weekend in the City," began that transformation, with more post-rock flavors and production tricks infused in their indie rock style, but 2008's "Intimacy" would mark the ambivalent tipping point of Bloc Party's changing sound - with more synth usage and a bigger spotlight on Okereke's vocals conjuring a pop/dance mentality, Bloc Party's indie rock sound was being eclipsed with mixed feelings.
The crossroads of "Intimacy" would be the precursor to Bloc Party going on hiatus while Okereke pursued a solo career to better act upon these different musical desires. But once Okereke got his dance music fix sated (from releasing his debut electronica album, "The Boxer," to working with brand-name DJs like Tiesto, Sander Van Doorn and Sub Focus), Bloc Party returned in 2012. But though their returning album, "Four," brought things back to an indie rock sound, it went even further than that, being the band's heaviest sounding album, which, once again, yielded ambivalent reception.
Whether in spite of those ungrateful for that return to rock, or just another desire to significantly change up their sound, Bloc Party's fifth album, "Hymns," has the band moving in a different direction, sounding even less rock-oriented than "Intimacy." Okereke's solo influences are easy to spot throughout, like the annoying pitch-bending synth lead in the dance/pop opener "The Love Within," the looping vocal samples in "Only He Can Heal Me," or the smooth "PBR&B" effort of "Fortress." But aside from his solo endeavors once again eclipsing Bloc Party's expected indie rock sound, "Hymns" also takes the post-rock sound that the band slightly dabbled with in "A Weekend in the City," and elaborates on it, heard in the hazy, droning guitar tones in "Different Drugs," "My True Name," and "Living Lux," although the last case also uses a throbbing, synching/desynching synth progression that treads on irritating rather than experimental.
This slower-going style is the most prominent flavor in "Hymns," but Bloc Party also try to entertain their indie rock side, though it ends up feeling like an afterthought. With the original, praise-worthy rhythm section of bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong out of the picture (replaced by Justin Harris and Louise Bartle, respectively), rhythms are noticeably less captivating than before - Harris shows off a few good bass grooves in "So Real," "Virtue" and "Exes," but Bartle's drumbeats are trite throughout. Even Okereke and lead guitarist Russell Lissack's guitar-work is generally back-seated, with only a few noteworthy moments coming off like reverberations of "Four," like Lissack's small fits of fretwork in "Into the Earth," and the country-style acoustic guitar riff in "The Good News" that not only calls back to the country likes of the "Four" song "Coliseum," but also sounds similar to the catchy riff in The Civil Wars' "Barton Hollow." Ultimately, this attempt to pair Bloc Party's familiar indie rock sound with their new efforts of slow and serene post-rock tries to give the sonic aspect of "Hymns" a balance, but ends up being an ill-suited half of the whole.
Lyrics — 7
Even though Okereke's very first lyric in "Hymns" is a blatant callback to the "A Weekend in the City" song "The Prayer" ("Lord give me grace and dancing feet"), Okereke's lyrics throughout the album is just as relationship-centric as "Intimacy" was. Okereke spends some time simply reveling in the romance, heard in the ambiguous symbolism of saviors in "Only He Can Heal Me" ("Lead me to my only temple where I overcome defeat / Let me rest there by my savior's feet/ For only he can heal me") and the elementary seduction portrayed in "Fortress," but of course, he spends more moments detailing his troubled times with partners. However, as opposed to the harping on the phase of melodramatic reaction like he did in "Intimacy," Okereke's lyrics in "Hymns" are more concerned with seeking resolution than revenge - this contrast is best seen in "Different Drugs," where the growing relationship rift described is similar to that of the "Intimacy" song "Trojan Horse," but this time around, Okereke is adamant on getting back in synch with his partner rather than running away from the issue ("Now we're running off the road / 'Cause you're asleep at the wheel / Which way do you choose? / 'Cause right now I choose you").
Overall Impression — 5
Given the arc of their catalog, Bloc Party's decision to change up their sound significantly isn't a big shocker. But though "Hymns" does indeed explore new sonic territory like it intended, Bloc Party's indecisiveness in the composition of the album is what trips it up. While the most dominant and fresh-faced side brought forth on the album sticks to the lower gear, the band's moments of attempting to contrast this new, slow and somber side with moments of old, dependable indie rock only hamper things - not only does the meager indie rock side of the album clash with the primary vibe of the album, but it highlights how unpassionate Bloc Party seem to be towards their old indie rock style. They clearly want to try new things, so they should try new things, but the "have your cake and eat it too" line that "Hymns" tries to walk between the old and the new doesn't succeed as a whole.