Bloc Party almost slept through Silent Alarm at Riot Fest | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Bloc Party almost slept through Silent Alarm at Riot Fest 

The band seemed oddly immune to their debut album’s edgy, propulsive energy—but their fans didn’t seem to care.

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Bloc Party: guitarist Russell Lissack, front man Kele Okereke, drummer Louise Bartle, and bassist Justin Harris - KRIS LORI
  • Bloc Party: guitarist Russell Lissack, front man Kele Okereke, drummer Louise Bartle, and bassist Justin Harris
  • Kris Lori

In March, British indie rockers Bloc Party announced a short U.S. tour to celebrate their first and best album, 2005's Silent Alarm. Their itinerary conspicuously omitted a Chicago stop, but I didn't assume that meant they'd play Riot Fest—even though the six dates they'd announced began a day after Riot Fest weekend, and even though the lineups for Pitchfork and Lollapalooza had already dropped, with no Bloc Party on either.

Riot Fest books lots of bands playing their most beloved albums in their entirety, as part of its pro-nostalgia brand. And the festival has expanded or even ignored its definition of punk (hello, Village People) in order to spice up its roster, so it had no reason not to include Bloc Party's blend of postpunk, indie pop, garage rock, and downtempo house.

All that said, Riot Fest still wasn't where I expected to see Bloc Party play Silent Alarm. I knew they weren't appearing at Lollapalooza, but they already had twice this decade, in 2012 and 2016. Lollapalooza still cares about cutting-edge guitar groups, and Bloc Party's stature—above midtier but not quite headliner—makes them a perfect band for a giant mainstream festival that hasn't written off rock music. Bloc Party are as relevant to the current zeitgeist as such a band can expect to be, considering that they formed 20 years ago and have lost a couple original members in the past six years.

Louise Bartle joined Bloc Party in 2015, replacing early drummer Matt Tong. - KRIS LORI
  • Louise Bartle joined Bloc Party in 2015, replacing early drummer Matt Tong.
  • Kris Lori

Bloc Party's significance in pop culture is very different in the U.S. than it is their native UK. At home they benefited from a garage-rock boom brought on by the likes of the Libertines, a band whose rabid fandom never expanded into the States. Over here, Bloc Party took their turn as indie-rock critical darlings after Franz Ferdinand and before the Arctic Monkeys, whose overhyped 2006 debut came out about 11 months after Silent Alarm. (Not at all by coincidence, all three bands have become Lollapalooza repeaters.) Bloc Party's early success in the U.S. dovetails with the rise of Steve Aoki: he signed the group to his Dim Mak label, and they became one of the artists to help it evolve beyond its emo and hardcore beginnings. Dim Mak released Silent Alarm through Atlantic's Vice Music imprint, a major move for Aoki and the band. Bloc Party's dance-forward sound also hinted at Aoki's future endeavors in EDM.

Justin Harris also joined Bloc Party in 2015, in time for the 2016 album Hymns. - KRIS LORI
  • Justin Harris also joined Bloc Party in 2015, in time for the 2016 album Hymns.
  • Kris Lori

Bloc Party have their feet planted in a few genres that Riot Fest hasn't explored yet, and the album-in-its-entirety routine is a good way for the festival to include a band from just outside its cultural purview—Riot Fest fans may or may not be down with Bloc Party, but they're certainly comfortable with full-album sets, which the festival has been hosting since 2014. Bloc Party aren't the only indie-rock band to play an entire album at Riot Fest, but they're not baked into the history of American rock or emulated by young U.S. punks the way Built to Spill and Dinosaur Jr. are. Silent Alarm is newer than the records those bands have played in full, but it's not Riot Fest's newest: Two years ago, Mayday Parade and Bayside performed full-lengths from 2007 (though those albums feel older, because they're grounded in third-wave emo, a style that's crystallized in the past). And this year Riot Fest booked Against Me! to perform all of 2014's Transgender Dysphoria Blues.

Part of what makes it feel strange for Bloc Party to perform all of Silent Alarm is that the album's legacy isn't yet clear. But my concerns that the band might be out of place at Riot Fest were dashed even before they went on. They played the same end-of-the-night time slot on the Rise Stage that Jawbreaker had the night before, and the crowd posted up to wait for their set was at least three times as large. And even though Bloc Party's set got off to a sluggish start and several of their lively songs came off tepid onstage, people stayed for the whole thing.

Bloc Party front man Kele Okereke - KRIS LORI
  • Bloc Party front man Kele Okereke
  • Kris Lori

Bloc Party performed Silent Alarm in reverse order, though it often felt like they'd ranked the album's songs and started with their least favorite. I suppose it didn't help that they opened with the album's least energetic material, but they struggled to find a groove till they hit the anxious "Price of Gas"—though its propulsive stomp didn't appear to energize the band members themselves.

Even when Bloc Party busted out dance-forward material that inspired large sections of the audience to get down (or just jump around), the band appeared static and largely unmoved. Front man Kele Okereke dispensed niceties between songs, occasionally finding ways to reference Riot Fest. He approached something resembling enthusiasm as he started his part of the nervy guitar duel that opens "Banquet," leaning into his mike to say "Oooooh shit."

A rare moment of onstage enthusiasm - KRIS LORI
  • A rare moment of onstage enthusiasm
  • Kris Lori

Near the start of Bloc Party's set, when they played "Plans," Okereke delivered the line "We're all scared of the future" with a hard bite. The whole species has good reasons to be scared of the future, of course, but I wondered if the band feel a fear specific to them—for their career prospects, for their place in the canon—and whether that fear drove them to tour on Silent Alarm.

I understand why there's an audience for Bloc Party playing the album, though I didn't expect that audience to come to Riot Fest. Silent Alarm sounds like the work of a group careening toward an unknown future, and its edgy, propulsive energy helped make it distinctive. Toward the end of Bloc Party's Riot Fest set, I wandered to the back of the crowd, where I could see some of Slayer's pyrotechnics on the Riot Stage. My eyes kept drifting over to the intense red light and plumes of fire, and I wondered why Bloc Party no longer sounded like a band who wanted to get that close to their own flame.  v

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