When you listen to Bloc Party’s fifth studio album, Hymns, which dropped today, you’ll notice a distinct difference in the overall sound and style. Those changes were no accident.
For the upcoming April issue of Electronic Musician, author Tony Ware talked to the remaining two original Bloc Party members—vocalist/rhythm guitarist Kele Okereke and lead guitarist Russell Lissack—as well as their production team for Hymns, the duo of Tim Bran and Roy Kerr known as MyRiot.
In the aftermath of Bloc Party’s 2012 album Four, Okereke became disillusioned with “harsh, trebly, angry sounds,” so when he convened with Lissack abou the new album, Ware wrote, “the two spoke at length about foregoing scratchy, piercing riffs and instead treating guitar as a malleable, textural element.”
Okereke also decided to change his vocal process and record vocals first. “In the past we jammed instrumentally and then I would write the vocal at the end of the process with the range and structure predetermined,” Okereke told Ware. “But I become frustrated over the years because it felt I was just joining the dots, and I always thought the vocal should be the most important part of a pop track, so that’s why we started with them. And what I found was it meant I could take an idea as far as I wanted and then fill in the canvas around it instead of constantly trying to somehow bridge everything together. It meant I was able to try more adventurous stuff with phrasing; I was able to explore different nuances with my singing voice that I don’t feel would have been my luxury given the way in the past we would write chord progressions that were convoluted and would change every bar, where it’s hard to settle vocals into a groove.”
The band worked at Lynchmob studios in London on a 1969 Neve board (featuring 28x1070L mic pre/EQs and 6x1081 mic pre/EQs). MyRiot tracked vocals with a Sontronics ARIA large-diaphragm cardioid valve condenser microphone through a Warm Audio WA76 compressor set on slow attack and fast release, as well as a Neve preamp. Also, after reading about the recording of Talk Talk’s 1988 Spirit of Eden, much of which was recorded in darkness, Okereke also chose to track 80 percent of his vocals with lights off and eyes closed to heighten a sensation of physicality.
Bran, Kerr and the band tracked 15 songs over two weeks. The MyRiot set-up was centered on networked, side-by-side rigs: a dedicated recording/editing/comping rig (Bran switching between Pro Tools and Logic X) and a processing rig (Kerr building in Logic X and the Native Instruments Komplete suite, with Softube Passive Equalizer and PSP Vintage Warmer 2 Multiband Compressor Limiter on the stereo bus).
“We can travel twice the distance in the same time,” says Bran. For instance, Bran might be working to record passes with Lissack, capturing the smooth harmonic response and breathing cadences of the guitar parts, while Kerr might be blending custom reverbs onto the back of vocals.
On the song “Fortress,” you can hear a long snap and swirling tails recorded in the concrete tunnels of a government research facility from the Cold War, while “Different Drugs” contains “subliminal elements” crafted out of vocals or other sounds clearly presented in the song but then warped and repurposed through a patchwork of octave and speed effects (digital, as well as a Line6 DL4 delay and/or JM4 looper). An Apogee Ensemble into KRK VXT8 monitors handled playback for one producer, while the other would work within Sennheiser headphones or Etymotic in-ear monitors, or vice versa.
Read the full feature with technical breakdowns of the recording of Hymns in Electronic Musician’s forthcoming April 2016 issue.
***[Bloc Party photo credit: Rachael Wright.]***