There has always been a duality to Bloc Party, one that fans, critics, and — most notably and unfairly — the band itself have forced to divide their music. One side has been the polyrhythmic, Wire-y post-punk romanticism, where right angle guitars and black blasts of rumbling bass drive the band’s occasionally awkward social indictments and social situations. The other side was some countryside intersection of U2, Coldplay, early ’00s emo, and Modst Mouse’s “Trailer Trash”. Here, Kele Okereke was wont to belt out emotional platitudes that sounded either poignant in their simplicity or simple in their overwrought attempts at poignancy.
The push and pull between these two elements was best balanced on their still excellent debut record, Silent Alarm. There, the energy of unthrottled explosions like “Like Eating Glass” and “Helicopter” rubbed sharp shoulders with glassy-eyed meditations like “Blue Light” and “This Modern Love”, and the contrasts between each highlighted the best moments of both. Ever since, the band has been trying to find that balance again, like a junkie trying in vain to recreate their greatest high. While A Weekend in the City was and is to this day an underrated second album, both Intimacy and the band’s return record Four found Bloc Party merely aping their greatest successes.
The Nextwave Sessions is the follow-up EP to Four and it shows that Bloc Party still aren’t sure who they want to be. There are five songs on the record, and they fall along the classic Bloc Party battle lines. Two tracks bristle with the band’s classic Gang of Four anxiety, and three appropriate the quiet, sad melodrama of their most cell phones-as-lighters ballad material. If you’ve been waiting for Bloc Party to branch out, expect The Nextwave Sessions to disappoint.
Most reductively and most accurately, The Nextwave Sessions are merely five more Bloc Party songs. They don’t find the band branching out or caving in, neither trying new things nor trying to reinterpret the old. If Four had been 17 songs long instead of 12, those extra songs would have been the songs from The Nextwave Sessions. There’s simply nothing here to differentiate a song like “Ratchet” from a song at any other point in Bloc Party’s post-Silent Alarm career, other than updated lingo. One of the lyrics to “Ratchet” is literally the phrase “get ratchet,” the only way to tell that this song comes from 2013 as opposed to 2005.
But The Nextwave Sessions isn’t a bad collection of songs, simply an undeniably “Bloc Party” one. “Ratchet” is full of ugly, 1988 Washington D.C. bass tone and thrashing crescendo, all of which could have fit nicely between Four’s “So He Begins to Lie” and “3×3″, while EP closer “Children of the Future” is every complaint about the band’s ham-fisted attempts at depth made manifest (the song is about, you guessed it, children being the future). “Montreal” is a third-generation redux of “Blue Light”. If you’ve heard any Bloc Party record, you’ve heard The Nextwave Sessions.
And that’s probably the saddest thing about Nextwave. Had this set of five songs been crafted by a new band — or had Bloc Party never released an album before — the oscillation between vibrant, unapologetic attack and passive, wounded storytelling on these tracks would be a very promising beginning, even accounting for Okereke’s AIM away message lyrics. But because The Nextwave Sessions reads like a compressed transcription of the band’s history to date, the EP actually paints black its possible pleasures.
Essential Tracks: “Ratchet”