In rock ‘n’ roll’s massive cookbook, the most called-upon recipe for heaviness is de-tuning the guitars. The easiest approach is “Drop D” tuning, in which the guitar’s low-E string is tuned down a full-step (or two frets). Play all of the guitar’s top three strings simultaneously on the same fret, and you have a power chord, the foundation of most riff-based music on the planet—and you can play it with one freaking finger, making the guitar neck so ridiculously easy to maneuver, even a kindergartener could easily cough up a few licks. Heaviness-wise, it’s almost bush league.
On paper, it may not sound like much of a big deal, but on their excellent fourth album, Four, Bloc Party—indie-rock’s former poster-boys—have made their first baby-steps into the world of “Drop C tuning,” a fitting musical gesture for a newly invigorated rock band focused on recapturing the raw, primal, unpretentious majesty of their glory days. Lower tunings, in this case, equal deeper emotions.
“We go to Drop-C on two songs, ‘Team A’ and ‘We’re Not Good People,’” says frontman Kele Okereke, speaking from the Bloc Party tour bus, which is currently perched backstage at a festival somewhere in France. “It was a first for us as a band. We’ve used Drop-D quite a few times, but Drop-C was a first for us, and it felt quite nice going to that place.”
“We’ve always been fans of rock music,” Okereke continues, “and we’ve always been fans of heavy rock music. In the past, one of the things I’m most proud of with our band is that there are all these different influences from different areas of music coming together. But we’ve always been fans of rock music, and it feels nice to make a record that is really channeling that, you know? It’s going as far as it can in that area. It felt quite nice to ‘rock out.’”
Okereke jokes about the band channeling their “inner rock gods,” but it’s clear there’s truth behind the snickering.
Four years prior, the British quartet released Intimacy, a bloated, experimental album filled with off-putting sonic detours, electro-heavy rhythms, and almost none of the hyperactive guitar-centric surge that defined their breakout classic, 2005’s Silent Alarm. The critical response to that controversial shift was lukewarm at best, and when Okereke ventured off to record a solo album, the beat-heavy The Boxer, two years later, it seemed the band’s best days were firmly in the rear-view, if not already out of sight.
When the quartet (Okereke, guitarist Russell Lissack, bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong) eventually regrouped in 2010 to discuss the possibilities of future music (“after a year apart of not having any contact and not making music”), they hardly even knew where to start the discussion. Or, as Okereke puts it on a recent Tumblr post, “We were exhausted and bored and distant from one another.” So they all parted ways: Lissack briefly joined alt-rock veterans Ash as a touring guitarist; Moakes settled down and became a new father; Tong set to work on crafting a home-built studio, and Okereke ventured to New York City, where he hunkered down for a novel-writing retreat (armed only with four albums: Led Zeppelin IV, Al Green’s Greatest Hits, Deftones’ White Pony and Nicki Minaj’s Beam Me Up Scotty mixtape.)
In the meantime, the British press had a field day with tabloid-style break-up rumors. When NME asked Okereke about the status of his band (and reports that his bandmates were carrying on without him), the tongue-in-cheek frontman remarked, “I hope I haven’t been fired. I don’t really know what’s going on, because we haven’t really spoken recently and I’m a bit too scared to ask,” later shrugging off the comments as an inside joke that got out of hand. “It was really funny to watch people following the news,” he now laughs.
But back in New York, Okereke had turned himself off from the world, working diligently on his novel and basically avoiding all human contact. “My only connection to the outside world was watching the news,” he reflects—but this particular brand of news was more universal. Okereke was suddenly inspired by all the big-game media coverage of 2011, this “amalgamation of images flashing in front of [him],” particularly the Occupy Movements and the Arab Spring. He started writing lyrics. “The human nature of saying, ‘We’ve had enough’ is really powerful,” he says.
“The future’s ours / We can feel it in our bones,” Okereke sings on “Kettling,” his sentiments echoed by propulsive pseudo-metal guitar riffs and head-spinning drums. “If the whole world’s watching us, let them watch.”
Four isn’t all balls-out, Drop-C rawk: “Real Talk” is a soulful lighter-waiver with a spine-tingling falsetto and what sounds like a banjo on the verses; tear-streaked ballad “Day 4,” which features some of Okereke’s most sensual, intimate vocals, could soundtrack a high school prom slow dance. But even when Bloc Party soften their palette or experiment with new textures, they always sound like a band playing together in a room, and their music always feels like it’s coming from a raw, profound place.
“I feel like all our records, from Silent Alarm to Intimacy, have been quite layered, textured records,” Okereke says. “And with this one, we were conscious about just recording the instruments as they were. Of course, there were still some tweaks in places, but it does feel like the leanest recording that we’ve made. I don’t know if ‘lo-fi’ is the right term, but to me, it’s just a little leaner.”
The album’s most representative track might be “3X3,” a dark, bewitching rocker filled with huge distortion and Tong’s cavernous drum fills, described by Okereke as “the most sinister-sounding song I’ve ever sung.” “It’s about black magic and incantation,” he says, and it’s easy to tell from the opening lyrics, whispered by Okereke in demonic rapture: “Three times three, first cut first / Pierce the skin / it binds us / Spit, cum, blood, liquid wax / No one loves you as much as us.”
don’t talk much when they write songs. They don’t often discuss what chords they’re playing, what effects they’re using, or even what tunings they might explore—no matter how heavy. “We’ve always had a telepathic musical connection,” Okereke reflects, and on Four, it’s never been deeper.