On first encounter, Hymns is a curious listen. The edginess that had cemented Bloc Party’s sound, whether it was in jagged guitar playing, layered with synths or off-kilter melodies is replaced here with a laid back, more open feel. The band’s fifth studio album takes its name and theme from front man Kele Okereke’s interest in religious imagery, with the intent to create a work of spiritual devotion while remaining true to his own agnostic views.
On top of this writing approach, it’s also worth noting the change in line-up that has occurred over the last two years. Since the release of Bloc Party’s last album – the guitar heavy Four – the band has lost and replaced their rhythm section. Stepping in to take over, Louise Bartle (found on YouTube by Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack) and Justin Harris (formally of Menomena) lock in beautifully on Hymns but as you would expect, it does give Bloc Party a new sound. The frantic and pushed drums alongside the staccato bass lines of past releases, are left behind in favour of a more groove orientated, natural feel.
Opening track ‘The Love Within’ with its off-beat rhythm and Lissack pushing his guitar into synth territory, sounds as if it could have been a demo from the period between previous releases Weekend In The City and Intimacy. Following track ‘Only He Can Heal Me’, again offers some hints at the Bloc Party of old, with Okereke supplying backing vocals in his familiar baritone range amongst moments of simple instrumentation.
As the album progresses, the sound does too, almost as if the intention was to introduce us gradually to this more relaxed, soulful side to Bloc Party. ‘The Good News’ is steeped in the southern states of America from its gospel choir, steel guitar and dragged-out chorus feel, while ‘My True Name’ starts off with a minimal approach not unlike The XX and finishes in a kind of hypnotic, ethereal fade out.
Overall, Hymns is a difficult but rewarding listen. The change of styles throughout tends to make it sound more like a group finding their sound than that of an established band on their fifth release. Even though Okereke and Lissack wrote the album, the playing of the new members bleeds into the tracks and creates this new, raw sounding Bloc Party. Some might say this would be a step backwards but if this was the debut album from a brand new band, I would definitely be excited to see where they go from here.