A couple of significant events occurred in the last couple of weeks in mainstream America and the UK, specifically relating to their annual awards shows the Grammy’s and The Brits. A band from Montreal , Canada shifted the thinking of the suits who make the decisions as to who should be rewarded for their achievements in the music world over the previous 12 months. Both awards ceremonies receive such widespread attention from all corners of the music world, with the vast majority thinking that they do not represent true music and pander only to the general public who thinks music integrity starts and ends with the X Factor. Sneered at by the indie mafia, and other musical genres for their token nominations for bands that are under the radar or seldom played on the radio, knowing that there is not a chance that they will win. Well on both sides of the Atlantic that trend ended. Both the Grammy’s and The Brits gave recognition to a band that I have adored since the first moment I heard them 6 years ago, awarding them Album Of The Year at the Grammy’s, and the Brits awarding them the awards for Best International Band and Best International Album. The band in question: Arcade Fire.
The 8 piece band is based around husband and wife Win Butler (Guitars, Lead Vocals) and Regine Chassagne (Keyboards, Accordion, Drums) along with Win’s younger brother Will Butler (Keyboards, Bass, Guitars), Richard Reed Parry (Guitars, Keyboards), Tim Kingsbury (Bass, Guitars), Sarah Neufeld and Marika Shaw (Violins), and Jeremy Gara (Drums). There reputation as one of the world’s finest bands has been a steady, word of mouth sensation, with critical acclaim, and a strong loyal following that has built up over the last 8 years leading to them to the point of selling out arena’s worldwide, headlining Reading Festival, and numerous other high profile festivals around the world. This is all without a hit record to their name, and staying largely out of the public consciousness which led to such an out pouring of “Who the f*ck are Arcade Fire??” when they were awarded such high profile awards. They have done everything artistically on their own terms, not compromising on how they want to be as a band, and have connected with a growing number of people as awareness of their epic, joyous, emotional, and life-affirming sound as well as blistering live performances has gathered pace. Many critics have cited an almost religious feel to their live shows where band and audience are working together to find the ultimate emotional connection, and having now witnessed them live on a few occasions I can only agree with that sentiment.
My first experience with the band came in mid-2005 when I was around a friend’s house in South London one Friday night. There were a fair few of us there having drinks and gearing up to watch Later With Jools Holland. A couple of my friends had mentioned that they had seen a band that were playing on the show that night only a couple of days prior to that at The Astoria (RIP) in London , and were waxing lyrical about how amazing they were. I had read a gushing review of their album Funeral in the NME only a couple of weeks prior to this. I had disregarded it as typical NME over the top, sensationalist, hyping of a band, so watched the programme with slight cynicism but knew my friends well enough to know that they would not be so praising of a band that didn’t deserve it. The very first song they performed was called Power Out and it caught my attention immediately with its driving, unique rhythm, great energetic guitar riff, a chorus chanted by every member of the band, an almost funky bass line that you would not expect to appear towards the end of the song, along with the use of a xylophone to counter each vocal line! The singers cracked, high end vocals I was not normally a fan of, but really seemed to work perfectly for the song they were singing. Another element that caught me immediately was the energy and manic performance from every member of the band, playing as if their life depended on it (a trait that the band has become famous for). The second song they played, Rebellion (Lies), cemented my initial feelings and I knew that this band was going to be something special.
A copy of Funeral, an album that got its name and was partly inspired by the death of several of the bands relatives before and during the recording of the album, was bought on the Monday. As a debut album, it is one of the finest albums ever recorded. The gentle piano intro to the opening track, “(Neighbourhood 1) Tunnels”, completely absorbed me before the pounding tempo of the bass drum arrives along with it the opening line “And, if the snow buries my neighbourhood”. As the song unfurls it conjured up intriguing imagery of a two kids abandoning their every day life in favour of a life together in the depths of an eternal winter, forgetting all about their parents, friends, and loved ones, yet still having that connection that they cant seem to let go of that haunts them even as they grow old. As the song progresses the music builds at a beautiful tempo, with flurries of piano, violin, bass, and atmospheric ringing guitar, all coming to the fore at various points, making their presence known but never over stating themselves. The chorus of “You change all the lead, sleeping in my head to gold, as the day grows dim, I hear you sing a golden hymn” still shows the undying love for their partner despite the memories of their previous life never far behind them. The climax of the chorus sees all instruments come together in a beautiful chord progression coupled with an increase in tempo before falling away and allowing the following verses to take centre stage. The song builds to a finale where the tempo is increased, all instruments are playing faster and harder, and the vocals becoming more passionate, but the song never loses its beauty throughout this and the final declaration of love in the final few lines of “Purify the colours, purify my mind, spread the ashes of the colours over this heart of mine” is followed by what has come to represent everything people love about the band. An ethereal, wordless coda, backed by a pounding beat, epic production, with all instruments building the instrumentation to a rousing crescendo of that beautiful chord progression. Never has a song had such a massive impact on me as a grown adult. It is simply stunning and nestles easily into my top 3 songs of all time.
The good thing is that the quality of the album does not let up. Lyrically it has so many interesting reference points creating an atmosphere that runs throughout the whole album. Musically I had also not heard so many interesting sounds coming from a record using so many different instruments and making the band so massive with layers and layers of sound that still uncover hidden depths even to this day.
“Laika” has its roots in more traditional indie with the added bonus of an accordion and stabbing violin lines.
“Power Out” as mentioned before grabs your attention immediately with a beast of an arrangement that makes you feel like the world is about to cave in on itself.
“Crown Of Love” another beautiful love song (or possibly a stalker song with a slightly sinister edge to a few of the lines) about someone who has lost a lover that has moved on but is helplessly hoping that they may come back to them one day. It avoids all cliché’s with what is a fairly standard subject matter for such a song, and the song erupts in the final minute into a fast paced violin-led riff with pounding piano accompaniment before the fade out that makes you desperate for the song to carry on its momentum for another few minutes.
“Rebellion (Lies)”, the most commercial moment on the album again contains that unique rhythmic quality that has become so distinctive to Arcade Fire’s sound. Its uplifting chanted chorus is a show stopper, and the now standard segue in live shows between Power Out into Rebellion is worth the ticket price alone.
The album also contains “Wake Up” the bands calling card. An epic anthem with a wordless chorus that is so joyous and remarkable it is now hard to imagine a musical world without it. It has become a hymn for the current indie generation with its self reflecting yet uplifting lyrical content over a genius guitar and bass riff before the final section of the song turns into a fast paced, motown influenced, pop song. A standard set closer these days and if there is any song that can show you the power of this band then this is it.
The album closes with “In The Backseat”, a hauntingly beautiful piano and strings based song sung by Regine about watching life go by while sitting in the backseat of a car before clanging electric guitar joins in for the chorus where lyrically it turns slightly dark with the line “ Alice died in the night”. The guitar drops out at the end of the first chorus allowing the violins to flourish, beautifully linking into the second verse. The song builds delicately and the chorus arrives again this time with powerful drums that could potentially ruin the ambience of the song, but somehow it works. As the song fades out each individual instrument slowly drops out of the mix, before leaving a faint picking of the violin neck before finishing. It is done with such panache it is difficult not to stand up and applaud at the songs end. A perfect ending to a perfect record in every way.
Their second album Neon Bible arrived in early 2007 with much anticipation within indie circles and was critically acclaimed when it arrived despite the dark nature of the subject matter. It was recorded in an old church the band had converted into a recording studio, and it spoke of impending apocalypse, post 9/11 doom, and feelings of loss and desperation. Yet somehow possessed some of the most uplifting and popular songs in the bands canon including lead single “Keep The Car Running” that announced their return with such power and finesse. Mandolin and hurdy gurdy are used prominently throughout along with an upbeat, powerful rhythm and trademark chanted chorus. “No Cars Go” originally on their self released EP now transformed into a monster stadium anthem with a return of the accordion that plays the songs central melody throughout. It is played at a frantic pace where the entire band sings as one. A wonderful breakdown occurs leaving just the voices and a few violin lines singing the fantastic line “Between the click of the light and the start of the dream” repeatedly, before building up the tempo, re-introducing the instruments steadily, before the line “Little babies, lets go!” introduces an explosion of strings while they round up every other person they can find to go with them, they finish with the uncertain line “Don’t know where we’re going” but immediately followed by a chorus of “Whoooooaaaaaas” that look to scale the heights of the similar passage in their signature song “Wake Up”. As the song reaches a crescendo all of a sudden it really doesn’t seem to matter where they are going as their army of followers chant along into the sunset. As a live song it is truly one of those church moments!
Other highlights include “Antichrist Television Blues” a Springsteen influenced country hoedown speaking of planes crashing into buildings, questioning god, and the exploitation of talented young teenagers to name but a few.
“Windowsill” another dark lyrical acoustic number speaks of their distaste of what a post 9/11 America has become living in constant fear of the end of days.
“Intervention” arrives with a huge church organ that runs throughout the song while lyrically it challenges the blind faith in religion while everything around crumbles apart. But once again, a dark and questioning subject matter that would be thoroughly depressing were it not wrapped up in an epic, hymn-like arrangement.
So while Neon Bible in retrospect was a very dark and gloomy album lyrically, it still possessed the wonderfully uplifting musical moments that saw their reputation rise again culminating in appearances at Glastonbury and a sub-headlining slot at that years Reading Festival. They toured constantly for a year with huge numbers of people turning out to see them for such a word of mouth band. They resisted the temptation to go for the easy option and play arena’s, choosing venues with far more character such as London ’s Alexandra Palace and playing multiple nights.
The Neon Bible tour also saw the band struggling to come to grips with playing in front of so many people. Not in a musical sense as their live shows continued to receive massive praise, the band continued to throw every ounce of energy into their performance, but the band looked awkward at the quieter moments between songs and looked uncomfortable communicating with the audiences. This did not hamper their ascendency and by early 2008 their profile was even higher, while still maintaining anonymity in the mainstream despite playing multiple nights at big venues.
A two year writing and recording break brings us round to the last 8 months when it was announced in spring 2010 that the new album “The Suburbs” would be out in the summer. It was released with massive praise by fans and critics alike. They headlined Reading Festival in August a few weeks after the album went to the top of both the UK and US charts.
For me personally I thought that the album was a leap forward from “Neon Bible”. It had a more nostalgic, yearning feel lyrically rather than the doom and gloom of the second record, and it is what could be described as a concept piece. The title and the lyrical feel to the album was inspired by when the Butler brothers returned home to their native Texas during their down time, and realised how much had changed since they were children. Lines such as “The summer when I broke my arm, I waited for your letter, I have no feeling for you now, now that I know you better” from another Springsteen influenced song “City With No Children” showcasing how time changes so much of what was so important to you as a child. The song, one of the more upbeat numbers on the record has a lovely atmospheric sound with an excellent guitar riff.
The opening title track takes you a bit by surprise due to its bar room piano lead and is a real red-herring for what is to come.
“Ready To Start” a thumping beat driven tune that has opened almost every live show they have done since its release, brings the audience back to what Arcade Fire are capable of with the powerful guitar riffing and slightly gloomy lyrical lines such as “If the businessmen drink my blood, like the kids in art school said they would”. It’s a wonderful statement of intent.
This is followed by the more subdued “Modern Man” that speaks of the suburban man that has turned into everything he thought he wouldn’t be leaving his dreams behind and quietly accepting this fate.
“Empty Room” explodes with frantic violins and a reverb drenched Regine lead vocal over a wall of sound that is one of the most energetic and atmospheric tracks on the record, this is followed brilliantly by the aforementioned “City With No Children”. The track “Half Light 1” a duet between Win and Regine is a beautiful string-laden track full of swirling atmospherics before leading into the electro buzz of “Half Light 2” that is heavily influenced by Depeche Mode.
“Suburban War” ambles into the room with some lovely guitar work and the most nostalgic feel and lyric on the album. Full of key lines “Now the cities we live in could be distant stars, I look for you in every passing car” “They keep erasing all the streets we grew up in”, “All my old friends, they don’t know me now”. A lovely moment occurs halfway through the song where three voices sing in harmony together before the verse starts again. A very minor part of the song, but an utterly charming one. The song turns on its head for the final minute and a half as heavy drums crash into view and bring the trademark Arcade Fire epic sound to the fore as the line “All my old friends, they don’t know me now” is sung over and over and the drums crash around it with the rumble of the band behind. This then leads into “Month Of May” a post-punk tune that you can tell the band love playing and has the same wall of sound and heavy atmosphere but packs a mighty punch when played at full volume. They even manage to throw in digs at the hipster crowd “Kids are still standing with their arms folded tight” for good measure.
The sequence of “Empty Room”-“City With No Children”-“Half Light 1” – “Half Light 2” – “Suburban War” – “Month Of May” is perfectly executed and is where the album flows at its best. Most surprising is the fact that “Month Of May” is the only track in that sequence that has been played live on a regular basis!
“We Used To Wait” again talks of childhood and how drastically the world has changed. The art of letter writing, sending it off and waiting daily for a response is sadly going to be an alien idea to anyone who was born beyond 1990 and lines such as “It may seem strange, how we used to wait for letters to arrive, but what’s stranger still, is how something so small can keep you alive” highlight this fact. It speaks of our all consuming society and everybody needing everything immediately without having the patience to wait.
“Sprawl 2 (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is another electro song, that sounds very much like Blondie with a vast array of sounds swirling around a Regine lead vocal. It’s a direction that they band had not explored before now but based on the electro-pop tracks that are showcased on the album, it’s a sound that they have nailed and will probably explore further.
In many fans eyes Funeral was their high watermark. A moment in time where the stars align perfectly that will never be topped, but by adding extra dimensions to their sound on “The Suburbs” and having such widespread critical acclaim then they will have the freedom to expand further as their career progresses.
Of course with all the acclaim by the press, fellow musicians who have name dropped Arcade Fire as a band they love since the Funeral days, along with an adoring public, their star has risen so much and the day came where the small intimate venues that they used to play have become a thing of the past. For their recent UK tour it was the vast enormodomes of The 02 and other arena’s around the country that were beckoning, and while I completely resented having to see them in such soulless venues they actually were able to get to grips with the awful acoustics of these venues but also managed to make them feel intimate. No mean feat. Their headlining Reading Festival appearance last summer was another triumph and the band seemed totally at home in front of seas of people along with an improved on stage patter between band and audience. Win Butler ’s voice has improved from the slightly forced high pitched yelps that graced Funeral that helped add the emotional intensity of that album. The last two albums have shown his voice improving and he appears to be at the top of his game as a front man. He has wrestled away the demons he was fighting on the Neon Bible tours in 2007 and looks a comfortable figure leading the line of an exceptional band.
The live environment is where the bands material packs the mightiest of punches. Visually they are mesmerising. Win with his intimidating height and boyish good looks, Regine dances and twirls around the stage, playing a variety of instruments. Jeremy is the pounding heartbeat of the bands rhythm section. Richard a tall, geeky, red head with a wide smile and a unique guitar sound, Tim who quietly goes about his business but is a powerful bass player and in Win’s words is the unsung hero of the band. Sarah and Marika not only masters of their instruments but also show incredible passion when performing. Finally my own personal hero Will Butler whose energetic stage presence is a major talking point for anyone who has seen the band perform. His long dark hair flailing around as he pummels any instrument that happens to have the misfortune of being in his possession. The man is completely awe-inspiring to watch, whether its him beating the living daylights out of a drum during “Rebellion”, battering various percussion instruments and his band mate Richard during “Laika”, his manic tambourine playing during “Tunnels”, climbing the stage rigging, and dancing behind his set of keyboards like a mad wizard. His energy is infectious and helps power the band along during shows.
Each member has their specific role to play and it’s difficult to imagine how the band would be able to function without each key element.
So, with three exceptional albums, critical and public adoration, multiple awards with each passing year, stellar live shows, and staying pure as artists in the process, there really could not have been a more deserving band to receive (in mainstream music’s terms) the highest honours that were bestowed upon them at The Grammy’s and The Brits. It has shown that the independent music scene still has a voice and can influence the suits in the industry to vote in favour of artistic integrity. It proves that being a true artist can pay off and be as rewarding as it used to be when creativity was valued and was given time to develop. Their steady rise to the top is testament to that. They should be an inspiration to any musician starting out that by staying true to what you believe in, and creating music that connects with people, anything is truly possible. I cannot wait to see where things go from here.