When Bad Songs Happen To Good Bands #3

About a year ago Bloc Party released their third studio album Intimacy as an online download for ten bucks. The download featured ten songs (“Talons” was added for the CD release, along with a bunch of bonus tracks), and since iTunes was still charging 99 cents a song at the time it seemed fair enough. (Plus, like I said, they’re one of my favorite bands.) In the months leading up to the online release of the new album, they’d put out a couple of heavily electronic singles. First there was “Flux,” which is a straight-up synth-driven dance song, and then there was “Mercury,” which turned out to be the lead single from Intimacy.

While “Mercury” took some time to get used to (as opposed to the instantly catchy “Flux,” which I think should have been the lead single instead), I found myself wondering if Bloc Party was about to release their Kid A — that is, an album where an established rock band suddenly shifts gears and explores electronica. Their change in sound between Silent Alarm and A Weekend In The City, while perhaps not the most popular of decisions, at the very least showed that they were a band who were willing to try new things and didn’t want to make the same album twice. So when the download became available, I snatched it up and decided to give it a listen.

Three minutes later, I found myself hoping I hadn’t made a big mistake. I had been greeted with a song so violently chaotic, so disorienting and confusing, that perhaps it makes sense that it was named for the Greek god of war. And no, I don’t mean this guy…

Dont mess with Kratos. He knows more ways to kill you than probably exist.

Don't mess with Kratos. Dude is so badass that he can kill you in ways you didn't even know existed.

Bloc Party’s “Ares” is just another example of what happens… When Bad Songs Happen To Good Bands.

Bloc Party had burst onto the music scene back in 2005 with Silent Alarm, a highly energetic record filled with guitar solos, rapid-fire drum fills, and frontman Kele Okereke shouting lyrics that may or may not have been about George W. Bush. They followed that up with A Weekend In The City, which didn’t pack that same intensity — Okereke started singing more than shouting, and the second half is pretty ballad-heavy — and even sounded like Snow Patrol at times. Then, of course, came the aforementioned “Flux” and “Mercury,” which completely did away with their rock-based sound altogether in favor of synths, electronic percussion, and distorted vocals.

Clearly they’re the sort of band that likes to keep their listeners guessing. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that at all — in fact, the best bands are usually the ones that do that. But in the first three minutes of Intimacy, Bloc Party goes a bit too far in their experimentation. The result is “Ares.”

The song is driven primarily by Matt Tong’s drumming, which is reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and a couple of Chemical Brothers songs that sound like “Tomorrow Never Knows.” There’s also a guitar effect that kind of sounds like a siren, hence the lyric “We dance to the sound of sirens.” And then, of course, there’s Kele Okereke shouting “WAR, WAR, WAR, WAR!”

Now, that would be just fine and good, I guess. Maybe not “hit single” material, but it might work as a lively opener a la “Like Eating Glass” or everything after the first minute or so of “Song For Clay (Disappear Here).” So that’s okay… oh, wait… what’s that, guys? You want to add more vocal tracks? And a bunch of dissonant sound effects too? I don’t know, I think it’s fine as is… but, uh… oh, hell, it’s your song. You can do whatever you want with it.

Whenever I listen to the studio version of “Ares” I feel like I’m sitting in a room with at least three other guys, and they’re all Kele Okereke, and the Kele Okerekes are all yelling at me one at a time and sometimes even at each other. Then the Kele Okerekes start screeching like the most annoying birds you’ve ever heard in the chorus. Then they take turns naming sneaker companies for some reason. And then at the end of the second verse (“It’s all getting/Quite highly charged…”) there’s a whole army’s worth of guys yelling at me, repeating everything Okereke says. There’s a quiet little break near the end with soft synths and Okereke’s falsetto… and then BAM BANG BOOM!!!!!!!!!! there’s an explosion of noise as the song reaches its climax. And all the while I sit there with my mouth agape like I’m staring at an exceptionally deadly train wreck.

Yeah, it's kind of like that.

Yeah, it's kind of like that.

In other words, listening to “Ares” is like ordering a pepperoni pizza and getting a pizza with pepperoni, anchovies, ham, olives, mushrooms, peppers, sausage, onions, garlic, beans, carrots, nuts, and at least four different kinds of cheese delivered to your house instead. Sure, the thing you want is buried somewhere in the mess, but you have to dig through the rest of the crap you didn’t want to find it.

Oddly enough, “Ares” is a song that seems to fare better in a live setting. This is because there’s only one Kele Okereke in the room and the rest of the band can’t overstuff the song with sound effects the way they did with the studio version. Go back and listen to the studio version again — I know you don’t want to, but bear with me here, I’m trying to make a point — and then listen to this version they played on Later with Jools Holland.

See how much less cluttered that is? It makes the song a lot easier to listen to. Even in its live form, though, “Ares” still doesn’t exactly rank among Bloc Party’s best work. It’s an improvement over the studio version, but the studio version is easily the worst song they’ve ever done, so that really isn’t saying much. The good news is that, “Ares” aside, Intimacy is still a pretty solid album. The bad news is that it could be the last we hear from Bloc Party for a while, according to an NME article from July 29. Which makes it all the more regrettable that I missed them when they played at the 9:30 Club in DC back in March.

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