Album Analysis | Bloc Party — Silent Alarm
Reaching its 15th anniversary, Silent Alarm is a debut focused on observation, that still feels fresh and relevant in today’s uncertain socio-political climate.
2005 was a turbulent year for British politics. The Iraq War had been raging for two years, spearheaded by US President George W. Bush Jr and the UK’s Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair. By this point, Blair’s legacy had been tarnished due to the rash decisions of sending ground troops into Iraq. Even after four years, the aftermath of 9/11 still ripped through the West, with its never-ending paranoia on whether another attack on that scale was to occur at any point. After evidence was being gradually uncovered that the war on Iraq, and specifically Saddam Hussein’s regime, was an overstep by Western powers, the British public were furious at the country’s involvement. These themes influence track number nine, ‘Price of Gasoline’, on Bloc Party’s debut, Silent Alarm. Even through this tumultuous time for the UK, politics still dominates headlines in a vastly oversaturated, media-influenced community. As Brexit finally happened, and fireworks let off all over the country in celebration from predominantly ‘Leave’ voters, Silent Alarm and its original messages can be applied to modern rumblings in society.
After two successful EPs in the early 2000s, Bloc Party returned to the studio for sessions that would end up being Silent Alarm. Praised in publications and on the radio for its angular guitar work from both Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack, it started to garner attention from Parlophone Records. Although offered a contract with Parlophone, the band decided to step back from the major label, and sign to Wichita Recordings instead. Convening with producer Paul Epworth, Silent Alarm was recorded in Deltalab Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark. Okereke had received vocal lessons to improve his delivery, something that seemed missing in their first two EPs. Guitar tracks were based on drummer Matt Tong’s rhythms, with emphasis on the rhythm section when recording, particularly bass-focused through Epworth. In Okereke’s own words, Silent Alarm was intended to sound “very rich and full”.
Presented as a record that was influenced by an eclectic mix of genres such as post-punk, R'n'B and electronica, on top of the accompaniment of recording inexperience by the band, Silent Alarm has plenty to offer. Across the tracklisting, new ideas are constantly presented and executed, but never overstay their welcome. Okereke’s lyrics take an observational perspective, especially through living as a young person, highlighting issues in British society, and his own personal life. Across the record, a certain level of neurosis is reached, both musically and lyrically, that can possibly be attached to the anxieties and paranoia of young people in modern Britain. Professor John Sutherland, an academic at University College London, compared the latter to the work of late poet Sylvia Plath. A particular focus was on the album’s opener ‘Like Eating Glass’, which looked at the final verse:
We’ve got crosses on our eyes
For richer, for poorer, for better, for worse
We’ve got crosses on our eyes
We’ve been walking into the furniture
Alongside ‘Like Eating Glass’ is the bleak, somewhat mirage-like album cover. A sheer white backdrop, with a scattering of grey, lifeless trees depicts most of the commentary seen in Silent Alarm. Interpreted as somewhat dystopian, what makes it so relevant in the modern-day is how it can still be assimilated into daily life. The raging and faltering of Western powers, particularly in the United States, are seen in single ‘Helicopter’, with sharp, indie guitar riffs dominating the mix. Lissack shines with his arpeggiated riffs that get under the skin of the listener, twisting and turning at every opportunity. Following swiftly on is ‘Positive Tension’, starting via a groove-induced bassline from Gordon Moakes. Silent Alarm focused a lot in the rhythm section and its dynamics, which peaks in ‘Positive Tension’; both Moakes’ and Tong’s contributions seamlessly flow into one another, never tripping each other over in the track. In comparison, Okereke and Lissack provide rigid, overdriven guitars in the second section, culminating in an epic solo after an exclamation of “why’d you have to get so fucking useless?”. ‘Banquet’ continues the post-punk infused indie rock that the early and mid-2000s were so renowned for. Although similar in style, ‘Banquet’ still feels refreshing and rewarding, with Okereke and Lissack again providing fantastic guitar interplay.
Silent Alarm’s progression slowly incorporates a wider array of instruments more frequently, alongside a more experimental approach to songwriting. The changes in style start to begin in ‘Blue Light’, with Lissack using a combination of delay and reverb to provide a lush backdrop to a crooning voice. Texturally, it feels more intimate than the beginning third of the record and demonstrates a wider way of thinking the band had at the time. Okereke has been quoted in a 2005 interview explaining that recording Silent Alarm was ‘to give the music more depth, sonically speaking’, where a plethora of influences resonates within the record’s core. ‘She’s Hearing Voices’, one of the first singles released under the Bloc Party name, combines the rich texture and punchy guitars with ease. Reflecting on a schizophrenic friend, Okereke hits the perfect storytelling perspective of a condition not many know how to deal with from an outside point of view. Thematically, it doesn’t feel out of place; with pro-mental health movements growing over the last ten years, ‘She’s Hearing Voices’ can be interpreted as a predictor of a motif in alternative music. Other alternative acts such as Girl Band, IDLES and Milk Teeth are key examples of groups showcasing explicit positive mental health attitudes through their music.
Perhaps one of the most well-known tracks on the record, ‘This Modern Love’ provides a childlike take on the beginnings of a new relationship. Tying in with Okereke’s observations, the final refrain is an accurate portrayal of modern intimacy — longing for affection and the mundane perception of
starting an adult life:
Do you wanna come over and kill some time?
Do you wanna come over and kill some time?
Do you wanna come over and kill some time?
Throw your arms around me
Themes of defiance and yearning for an impact on the world continue into ‘Pioneers’, commonly known as ‘The Pioneers’, with delayed guitar harmonics contrasting a somewhat primal drum pattern provided by Tong. A motivating track, attempting to foster inspiration and hope into future generations, as well as Okereke’s, ‘Pioneers’ is an underrated moment on Silent Alarm, and adds a somewhat optimistic outlook to the record. However, ‘Price Of Gas’ is a stark contrast to this, adding in a cynical take on the West’s overbearing influence in the Middle East. The group’s creativity to wanting a fuller sound takes even more of an avant-garde approach, with the marching sound being formed by Moakes walking across the studio with planks of wood strapped to his feet. These percussive elements are a welcome addition, as well as providing a backdrop to Tong’s encompassing drum line. Providing one of the most rigid rhythm sections of the 2000s, ‘Luno’ continues an excellent coupling of drums and bass from Tong and Moakes respectively.
A fast-paced rock track laced with post-punk influences, Lissack adds over this frantic foundation with angry, but somewhat messy, guitar solos. Coupled with how Okereke described the track as ‘people changing in a bad way’, this furious instrumentation is symbiotic to the lyrical undertones. After this sprawl of anger, the final three tracks, ‘So Here We Are’, ‘Plans’, and ‘Compliments’ are melancholic in tone, and showcase the band’s willingness to add more effects to their instruments. ‘So Here We Are’ is a backdrop to a euphoric drug experience and wanting to retain that feeling of joy and ecstasy.
Shimmering guitars that interplay between one another provide a dream-like effect on the listener, coupled with Okereke’s slightly-hushed vocals. ‘Plans’ explores the theme of wanting a close friend to get up and change something in their life, perhaps referencing mental illness, whilst ‘Compliments’ closes the record with an electronic drum pattern criticising the mundanity of working life, ‘crushing routine’ and ‘hating your job’. The latter quote has stemmed from early videos of the group, under the moniker Union, showing evidence of a version of ‘Compliments’ back in the early 2000s sounding remarkably different.
Whilst not discussed as an acclaimed track on Silent Alarm, ‘Compliments’ acts as a precursor to the sound Bloc Party would adopt in later records, such as A Weekend In The City and Intimacy. Many fans of Bloc Party gradually disagreed with the group’s stylistic changes, as Okereke seized a greater proportion of control in writing and production. Tension in the group was greater, leading to a hiatus at the end of the 2000s. Their fourth record released in 2012, Four, returned to a more rock-oriented root, although critical and commercial acclaim was lower than expected. Tong left the band in 2013 to focus on other projects, such as experimental outfit Algiers, with Moakes’ departure happening in March 2015. Replacing this seemingly unbreakable rhythm section would be Louise Bartle on drums, and Justin Harris on bass. Since then, the band has released Hymns in 2015, with no announcement of a new record in the 2020s. Silent Alarm was played in its entirety in 2018 and the tour was extended in 2019 due to the rapturous attention it gained from fans.
Silent Alarm sits in an interesting position in its own cohort and contemporaries, as well as what it holds currently in the modern-day. Acting as a diary for Okereke’s thoughts and observations, fans hold Silent Alarm with high esteem, due to its originality in production and experimentation with instruments. However, whilst also adored by that generation, an outcry is still felt from diehard supporters about how Bloc Party should return to this angular sound, avoiding this new electronic-led approach. As a result of the band’s direction, an argument could be made that Silent Alarm is the black sheep of Bloc Party’s discography. Its variation in intensity and emotion can be coupled back to Okereke’s main intentions – describing life as a young person in Britain, with the protagonist acting as an arbitrary figure. The listener can make their own decision as to how this figure acts, thinks and behaves across the entire span of the record, which is what makes Silent Alarm so accessible, yet when revisited, different messages and themes can be picked up; much like a normal friendship or relationship in modern times.
From a personal anecdote, my music interest started with Silent Alarm. Over the last eleven years or so, Silent Alarm sits in the centre of a spiderweb, connecting to an exploration of Bloc Party’s contemporaries, as well as its main influences, in the post-punk genre, and has led me to discover some of my favourite records and artists of all time. Its additional elements of a plethora of genres have assisted in discovering new genres that a young teenager would think he’d never like. Although my musical spectrum is far greater than I ever thought it would be, I always return to Silent Alarm frequently for new ideas, whether it be for writing or new music to listen to. For that, I am forever grateful for how Silent Alarm has shaped my music perception. Still, it remains one of, if not, my favourite record of all time. On its 15th anniversary, it deserves the same respect and acclaim it was initially given, with its plaudits reverberating across this decade in varying domains.