On Hymns, their fifth studio album, the English indie band created a “spiritual” sound by focusing on live tracking, electronic-influenced guitar manipulation, and recording vocals first.
If you want a window into the sessions for HYMNS, indie rock band Bloc Party’s fifth album, it has to be stained glass.
Surrounded by custom pedalboards and electric pianos, wrapped in an atmosphere of transition following the departures of drummer Matt Tong and bassist Gordon Moakes, founding members Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack set out to make an album imbued with both renewed faith and an approach where nothing is sacred. To help achieve this end, they set a pane of colored glass in the tracking room, projecting random films through it and bathing the room in an attitude.
On the one hand, this window cast an appropriately spiritual dimension on an album with devotional underpinnings, while it also represented a newfound approach to controlling sound. “After Four I was kind of repulsed, if I’m honest, by harsh, trebly, angry sounds,” says Okereke, the band’s vocalist and rhythm guitarist. “Four felt cranked up to 11—intense and overdriven, harsh and raw, which was what we wanted, everything sounding like it was in the red. But a year into touring, I wasn’t enjoying performing those songs. They felt like we were posturing, playing at rock ’n’ roll; it didn’t feel like it was coming from an honest place. So as an instinctive mechanism I started gravitating toward more gentle, sensual music.”
Immersing himself in DJing, as well as producing his second solo album, Trick, Okereke embraced the warmer, deeper, bassier sounds resonating with him. So, when Okereke and guitarist Lissack convened in 2014 to start drafting rough ideas for a new album, the two spoke at length about foregoing scratchy, piercing riffs and instead treating guitar as a malleable, textural element.
“I can imagine people think I have a recognizable style, which is flattering, but they often associate it mostly with the well-known songs from our early releases, which were more frenetic, cutting, and angular,” says Lissack. “However, over the course of our history with music I feel like I’ve covered a lot more than that and my philosophy has always been to progress and do something different.
“Making a guitar sound not like a guitar has always appealed to me, and looking back at the song ‘Hunting for Witches’ on our second album [A Weekend in the City] you can hear what is clearly a guitar, but one with a harsh, computerized edge to it,” he explains. “And Kele continues to push me to explore new ideas, as I do the same for him, so there are even more processed, manipulated tones [across HYMNS]. On the flip side, on the song ‘The Good News’ I play slide guitar, which is such a traditional antithesis to the electronically produced tones, but it’s still different as it’s something I’ve not done before. There are multiple routes down the path to something new.”
Bloc Party debuted in 2003, rising above a wave of raw post-punk bands. Over the next decade the band released four albums that veered between moments of reflective intimacy and blunt aggression. With HYMNS Okereke and Lissack entered into what could be considered Bloc Party 2.0, and the efforts to redirect the band’s studio process in terms of technicality and musicality proved very illuminating.
“The track ‘Only He Can Tell Me’ was one of the first things we demoed, and it was incredibly exciting when that song came into being and we stumbled onto that pulsing tremolo effect,” reflects Okereke. “It took the brittle nature of the guitar work on Four and gave it instead an impressionistic, almost watercolor feel. To me it was super exciting to hear this blurring of a sound I was so used to hearing, to create songs where the guitar line is almost symphonic, like a distant string section in another room. Russell’s sound has always been so close, so sharpened, so there was a beauty to hearing him making these new sounds.”
Feeling renewed and ready to fully explore a more diffused aesthetic, Okereke and Lissack turned to production duo MyRiot—Tim Bran and Roy Kerr—well-known most recently for their work on 2013’s London Grammar debut record. “Our production for London Grammar involved a lot of reverbs, specific uses of gaps in the audio, and a willingness to not fill every microsecond with something,” says Bran. “Right from the beginning Kele and Russell talked about wanting a record with a lot of space and width, saying it would have this personal, spiritual feeling in many forms, and we loved that idea.”
Writing across 2014 in bursts, Okereke and Lissack knew they wanted songs enriched by sound design, but constructed from live elements. Additionally, Okerele and Lissack were integrating new bassist Jason Harris (of Portland, Oregon, indie rock group Menomena) into the group. (New drummer Louise Bartle was brought in late in the recording process.) So, booking rehearsal space for several weeks, Bloc Party invited Bran and Kerr to sit in on the last week and offer arrangement suggestions as the band ran through the songs repeatedly.
“It quickly became apparent the goal was always the sound of four people playing in a room, even if augmented or magnified,” says Bran. “They might be alternating between electric piano, different guitars, bass guitar or subbass keyboards, but it all reflected people plugged in, so the first step was to find ways to distill eight hours of rehearsal a day into the best four-minute songs.”
“A lot of the guitar parts were written by Russell through his pedalboards, so they came in fully formed,” says Kerr. “But they were also great at being open, not so prescripted. Part of the point was letting us take things a step further. It was very refreshing to work with people so confident, with clear ideas, but still allowing us to experiment. Some days it was an engineering project, and others it was really creative.”
Moving to Lynchmob studios in London, where they worked with engineer Max Heyes and his vintage 1969 Neve (featuring 28x1070L mic pre/EQs and 6x1081 mic pre/EQs), Bloc Party and MyRiot initiated the sessions around a Sontronics ARIA largediaphragm cardioid valve condenser microphone.
“In the past we jammed instrumental and then I would write the vocal at the end of the process with the range and structure predetermined,” says Okereke. “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.”
Tracking the ARIA through a Warm Audio WA76 compressor set on slow attack and fast release, as well as a Neve preamp, Okereke carried through an understated, tender quality to his voice first explored on his last solo album. After reading about the recording of Talk Talk’s 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 setup was centered on networked, side-by-side rigs dedicated recording/editing/comping (Bran switching between Pro Tools and Logic X) and processing (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 Line 6 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.
Lissack’s parts—played on a combination of Fender Telecaster, Fender Stratocaster, and Gibson SG through various pedals and amps—were fed through two BSS Audio AR-133 active DI setups, splitting up clean signal and pedalboard with amps connected on the thru of the DI box. The amps—including Vintage Vox AX30, Fender Bassman, Fender Deluxe Reverb, and Marshall MS-2, as well as Audio Kitchen Big Chopper—were miked with a Beyerdynamic M88 to get a fatter tone then sent through Neve 1081 preamps and into Pro Tools, where the various signals were blended in the final result. (Okereke’s Fender Deluxe Reverb was similarly DI’d and miked, while the bass setup was DIed, miked with an AKG D12 E dynamic, then compressed with a dbx 160X and EQed with Amek PMO1.)
Lissack’s pedalboard has evolved substantially over the years with the most recent builds by Audio Kitchen’s Steve Crow, who designed switchers to allow multiple pedals to flip between EFX chains with a true bypass built in. While the pedals still include a simple Boss DD-5 delay—one of Lissack’s first pedals and a key element on Bloc Party’s earliest material—one of the most prominent new additions is the Eventide PitchFactor, a “Pandora’s box” Lissack selected for its HarPeggiator function.
Lissack uses some pedals to direct loops and mutating, almost synth-like sweeps; these needed to be at hand height to avoid entire songs being performed in a crouch, so Crow and the band’s guitar tech Leif did lots of sawing, hammering, and drilling to craft a compact controller platform.
For drum parts, which were performed by Alex Thomas, Heyes set up a variety of microphones, including the AKG D12 E on kick, Shure SM7b on snare, Shure SM57 under snare, Neumann KM140 on hi-hat, Sennheiser 421 on rack and floor toms, two Neumann KM84s on overhead, Neumann SM69 for room ambiance, and two AKG 414s for ambience in the corridor.
“Kick drum came back into a Neve 1070 desk channel, then the output of the channel was routed through a Focusrite ISA 215 to add some bass EQ, then into a Digidesign 192 HD interface,” says Heyes. “Snare came back through a Neve 1081 channel. Under-snare, hi-hat, toms, overheads, room ambience, and corridor ambience went through Neve 1070 channels. The hi-hat had AMEK PM01 EQ added, and under-snare had AMEK PM01 EQ added. I also paralleled the under-snare with a Valley People Gain Brain to bring out loads of rattle and vibe.” Corridor ambience microphones were compressed heavily with Valley People 610 stereo comp, and room-ambience mics were compressed using a Neve 2254c.
Discussing the coloration of the signal chain, Bran explains that “some saturation and a bit of distortion helped offset the clarity, and having multiple DIs and ambiance channels gave us great character choices.”
MyRiot auditioned channels, muting one by one and stripping back anything that left no impact in its absence. A combination of digital and spring reverb—with widening automation—filled in grandeur around the parts.
Rough mixes established, the band and MyRiot sent the album to David Wrench for final mixing; he worked in Pro Tools 11, while often running things out through a Mutron Bi-Phase, Roland CE1, Roland Space Echo RE201, and/or ’80s MXR Phase 100 pedal.
In the box, Wrench applied a wide range of compression, including PSP MasterQ2 and Waves SSL on the drum and mix buses. On vocals, he applied UAD 1176AE or LA2A Grey, Fairchild 660, and 1176 emulations, as well as Avid EQ3, Waves Renaissance DeEsser, and sometimes C4 multiband EQ, with both volume automation and Roland Space Echo manually adjusted along each phrase to remove clicks and noise and to create movement. Guitars also got UAD LA2A, Fairchild 660, and 1176, as well as two runs through the Bi-Phase that would be panned to create extra width. Some Valhalla DSP Vintage Verb would reinforce but not emphasize separation. “The main thing that keeps air while allowing me to sculpt the tone is using multiband EQ,” says Wrench. “I use this on the mix bus as well. Either [Waves] C4, C6, or Linear Phase MB. I find I can control frequencies without having to lose them completely; I can tame a guitar with the occasional boom without making it sound thin elsewhere.” Wrench achieved what Kerr describes as an “analog crunch and toughness … a leanness while the sounds are still wide … tight, thuddy, and warm.”
Lissack sees HYMNS as an album that follows Bloc Party’s practice of creating shifting palettes of rich, emotional tones. “This album came from a time of big changes, but one where we also returned to the way we started making music,” he says. “People might judge us on the differences in texture of the new material, but they should also see we’re still working off the same chemistry we always have, pushing each other to produce something organic we’d never have thought of on our own.”