Photo credits Wunmi Onibudo
Ambition. Corruption. Desire. Dysfunction. Dominance and submission. Getting what you want at all costs. Burning bridges. Cutting ties. Losing sight. Playing your cards. Sleight of hand. These are just a few of the themes and energies that simmer and burst throughout Alpha Games, the sixth record from British band Bloc Party.
Alpha Games has been a few years in the making, with the first seeds sown during Bloc Party’s string of Silent Alarm shows back in 2018 and 2019. Alpha Games feels breathless and intense; all spiky riffs, propulsive drums and confrontational, narrative-based lyrics running rings around the listener. It is, as Justin Harris describes it, “forward thinking, with a heavy nod to the energy of the past.”
“When we did the Silent Alarm tour I had to listen to that record from start to finish. I haven’t really done that since it was made,” Kele Okereke remembers. “I think that kind of energy we felt when we were performing those songs went some way into informing where we went next… That process definitely informed the music on some level.” Russell Lissack agrees: “It’s natural the influence seeped in. I know personally I felt invigorated by the live reception to playing those songs again, and wanted to capture a piece of that.”
That said, there’s nothing nostalgic or backwards-looking about Alpha Games. This is the first record the four-piece have made with this exact line-up (2016’s Hymns was largely written by Kele and Russell). In that sense, Alpha Games feels like a rebirth of sorts; the core energy of Bloc Party channelled through a fresh new lens. “It was really fun writing with [Louise Bartle and Justin] and seeing what they were capable of seeing; the new shapes and the new sounds they could make,” says Kele.
Photo credits Wunmi Onibudo
“I am happy to have been able to play on a record finally!” adds Louise, who first joined them for the Hymns and Silent Alarm tours.
To listen to Alpha Games is to go on a journey. From the sharp, visceral boldness of album opener “Day Drinker” to the sleazy, glam rock feel of “The Girls Are Fighting” to the bitter-tinged, melancholy album closer “The Peace Offering”, it’s hard not to feel as though you are being invited into a web of unsavoury characters, regretful moments, dark and sinister feelings and actions. There are sexy moments, there are tender moments, but mostly this is, as Louise describes it, an “angry” album – or at least cold, cutting. “With this album I was very conscious about taking the listener on a journey,” adds Kele. “That’s why the first and last song are so important. They bookend the characters’ state of mind.”
For Kele, writing Alpha Games at this particular time in the UK fundamentally shaped the record’s vibe. “These last few years have felt like a morally bankrupt time” he says, referencing the political climate, Brexit, the back-to-back scandals of the past few years. “It really felt like we were in an episode of House of Cards. That definitely bled into what I wanted to say. I feel like in all of the songs on this record there are people in extreme situations, making extreme choices; that’s what I wanted to capture. But what happens to our humanity when we prioritise success at all costs?”
UK Politics aside, the premise of a dark underworld, a double life, has always held a certain appeal – or at least fascination – for Kele. This is most prominent on “Rough Justice,” a cold and rhythmic slice of strutting dance-rock which brings to mind the characters of Bret Easton Ellis, or someone you’d meet at an exclusive afterparty. “We be kind of choosy, put us in the movie / First in the jacuzzi, gang gang all the way,” Kele’s voice echoes over stark, propellant beats. “Pupils dilated, you love it or you hate it / Follow me round the party, but I’m not in the mood.”
Photo credits Wunmi Onibudo
“I’ve always thought that having a secret double life – a public face and a private face – was something really sexy,” says Kele. “So I guess that was loosely what ‘Rough Justice’ was about – this clique of well heeled party people that have this secret criminal connection. A bit like Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama crossed with Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, glamorous people doing dangerous things. ‘Rough Justice’ seemed to write itself.”
After almost two decades, six albums, endless world tours and a variety of solo projects along the way, Bloc Party are a different band to the one which burst onto the indie scene in the early 2000s. It’s an evolution and growth that seeps into every corner of Alpha Games. “I don’t feel that I’d have been able to write songs like this earlier on in my career because all of the characters seem to revel in their dysfunction,” Kele says, “whereas I feel like in the past I would have tried to resolve everything or put a rosy tint on things. But I think it was important in this record to see all of the ugliness. To see what happens when you stop seeing other people as human.”
Bloc Party might not be looking to the past, but they’re also not looking ahead too much either. Alpha Games is a product of right here, right now. “I think this might be the most evolved Bloc Party record yet,” says Justin.
“This album had been three and a half years in the making for us and, without wanting to go into it, there were lots of points during the making of this record where we weren’t sure if it was going to get made at all,” adds Kele.
“So now that I’m here and it’s actually coming out, I just feel a massive sense of relief. This music has been quite dark at times and it’s been a lot to have that going on in the background the whole time… I’m just happy that it’s done and that it’s coming out.”