Etymology: German, from Zeit (time) + Geist (spirit) -- the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era.
Yeah, it's a loaded word, one that knots sober Teutonic gravity around dramatic academic loft. But Merriam-Webster's definition couldn't be more on point in describing the music of U.K. quartet Bloc Party. When its debut LP, Silent Alarm, hit American ears this time last year, there was no denying the band's confident blend of disarmingly passionate lyrics, gleaming guitars, and galloping drums. On both sides of the Atlantic, critics praised and fans danced. An amalgam of influences from decades past that bull's-eyes a contemporary urgency, Bloc Party has struck a powerful chord.
"I think the word 'Zeitgeist' is a very accurate one," says singer/guitarist Kele Okereke via cell phone. "It's not just bands, it's the music that's being played to people in clubs now, that's influencing fashion magazine shoots, influencing the art world: Everything seems to be leaning towards that period in time, the '80s."
It's early evening in his East London neighborhood, and Okereke is hoofing to a local grocer to pick up the makings for veggie lasagna. He's throwing a dinner party at his flat tonight before the band heads to its first U.S. gig of the year. Clearly, the Z-word is one the affable, tender-throated vocalist relates to.
"We're at an age, and this always happens in history, when people are looking back 20 years to see a golden age," he continues. "I think to a certain extent that has affected how we want to make music."
There's a distinction to be made here: Bloc Party is not a throwback band. It does not sound like The Police, or The Cure, or -- as is most commonly, lazily mentioned -- Gang of Four. These are the '80s bands most tee-shirt-and-blazer-clad rock archivists would call seminal, another melodramatic term that Bloc Party could be tagged with.
"I always thought that Gang of Four thing was so misleading. They were never really a band to me that meant anything," Okereke scoffs. "One of the things we have in common, I guess, is that as a band we were always looking to make something that was kind of primal and kind of rhythmical. That was always key for us, was to do something that had a groove, that was very jarring. And I guess that's something that Gang of Four do as well."
So the spirit is there, a faith in spiny guitar riffs and shuddering, thundering bass lines. The jarring grooves are also there, splayed in plain sight across punky rave-ups from Silent Alarm like "Positive Tension" and "Like Eating Glass." But there's also a sullen layer of soul in Okereke's voice, and a certain detached, unlikely hope in his lyrics that evokes the urban dramas of everyone from Simon & Garfunkel to Sonic Youth to Prince.
Still, Okereke is dodgy about discussing the nature of those lyrics. Some have been interpreted as overtly political ("Stop being so American/There's a time and a place," from "Helicopter"). Others dig into deeply personal, keenly observational territory ("I caught a glimpse, but it's been forgotten/So here we are again/I made a vow to carry you home," from "So Here We Are"). Throughout, Okereke's voice veers from a weary, almost wounded lament to a radiant, resolved bark. Songs ebb and flow with a mesmerizing vitality, a unique but familiar cycle of emotion making for a thrilling rock record that borders on profound social statement.
"It was really just a reaction to music that we deemed to be unexciting," he says of the band's sound. The tinny bustle of the grocery store echoes in the background, and Okereke picks up an apple strudel to serve for dessert. "A lot of the British guitar music in the late '90s was in a real bad way, post-OK Computer. There were all these dull bands like Travis, Starsailor, and Coldplay to a certain extent, taking this template, this Radiohead sound of an acoustic guitar and that sort of high male voice, and I thought it was just pretty lazy. And that's why we gravitate towards something that's darker and more energetic. We were kids growing up in the last period of good guitar music that really excited us in the late '90s. It just wasn't interesting enough, much of the guitar music we were hearing around that time. I thought to myself I could do better. And that's why we started this band."
Since the acclaim of Silent Alarm -- which sold a respectable 250,000 units in the States and more than 300,000 in England -- Bloc Party has been on near-constant tour mode. The versatile band is as rambunctious onstage as it is nuanced in the studio, locking in as an interplaying unit and inciting crowds into unabashed, upbeat panic.
"Everyone always assumes that we're really po-faced, serious guys, but playing live is something that we all really enjoy," Okereke says. "If you can't express your enjoyment there, where can you express it, really?"
With a sophomore album set for a fall release, Bloc Party makes its first visit to Arizona seeking a "less pressurized environment" to flex its newer material. Okereke is aware of the added expectations placed on a follow-up, especially given the hype heaped onto baby bands like the Arctic Monkeys in his native country.
"It's something we're used to in the U.K., this high turnover, and it can work in a band's favor," he says. "Sometimes, though, it has detrimental effects on a band's career if they're being so heavily associated with something that's said to be so fleeting. In the case of the Arctic Monkeys, it could really only happen in the U.K. It's something to be wary about. They're so young, I'm not sure if they can follow up again. But that's something everyone has to go through, is writing the second record."
Over the sound of electronic beeping at the checkout counter, Okereke asks, "What's a good white wine to get for a party? Because I'm staring at some now. I'm not a big wine drinker."
Sauvignon Blanc, I suggest, or Chardonnay.
"It's funny," he says. "There's a TV show in this country called Footballers' Wives, and one of the wives is called Chardonnay, and the parody is that she's quite trashy. So I was gonna try to avoid the Chardonnay."
Go for the Sauvignon Blanc, in that case.
"I've got some. I'll tell the others it wasn't my choice, so if everyone likes it, thanks."
If Okereke offers it, chances are they will like it. There's another potent word he ought to get familiar with: trendsetter.