2007 / Music

Review: Arcade Fire’s ‘Bible’ Is Powerful Holy Roller

Canadian-Rock Combo Release Followup To Acclaimed Debut

Anyone in the spotlight — actors, musicians, even politicians and preachers — all basically rely on the same bag of tricks. The only division that matters between these seemingly disparate occupations is what separates the good ones from bad.

Photo: Merge Records

Photo: Merge Records

Think about it. Whether someone is dressed in period costume and speaking in an accent or is head-banging while playing a metallic guitar riff, theatrics — if done well — go a long way to conveying a message and selling a point of view to an audience. This is why “American Idol” judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul often counsel the neophyte performers who take center stage that they must pretend to really feel every line that they sing. You won’t break anyone’s heart if you just run through the words and don’t seem to dish a little.

Canadian-rock ensemble Arcade Fire has taken this lesson to heart and arranged it so that there’s an almost oppressive sense of drama permeating all of the group’s songs. This strategy sometimes seems like overkil but this is also one of the group’s best attributes. Arcade Fire’s music is a book-ish, upper-class update on Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound.” They’ve crafted four-minute symphonies full of stirring, emotional singing bolstered by sensitive melodies created by a chorus of strings and other non-conventional instruments that color the typical rock band configuration.

After knocking indie-rock fans on their ears with their much-loved debut, 2004’s “Funeral,” the Montreal-based group has released a new disc, “Neon Bible,” that is a powerful second act and one whose lone transgression is its tight focus on staying true to the plot laid down on their first disc.

“Neon Bible” is slightly darker record, but is just as operatic in scope as “Funeral.” Like fellow hipster darlings, the Decemberists, who operate in a world first dreamt up by arcane, Americana literary giants like Melville and Hawthorne, Arcade Fire embraces Wagner-esque musical drama. There are no musical half-steps and no emotion unworthy of being inflated into an enthralling requiem with a rock beat. The songs are a contrived performance. Like a holy roller, there’s honest fervor involved in the act, but it’s still a performance.

The key to avoid burnout from the band’s musical exaggerations is to listen to “Neon Bible” in sections. Any other strategy is to risk becoming oversaturated. Fresh ears are necessary to stick with the band as they painstakingly scale the heights of musical Valhalla.

An example is “Intervention,” which begins with a “Phantom Of The Opera” cathedral organ and only gets bigger from there. As the organ wheezes in the background, an acoustic guitar begins to strum and singer Win Butler passionately warbles cryptic lines that foreshadow death, disconnect and madness. Mandolin-like trilling guitar quivers as the song slowly blossoms into an enormous stage production with pointed electric bass and an avalanche of strings. A faint chorus of women or young boys emerges and engages in a call-and-response with Butler as his pleas become increasingly urgent. Just as the melodies reach gigantic proportions, the song instantly ceases. It’s a long four minutes later, but a thrilling listen as the musicians slowly reveal an architecture of complimenting sounds to achieve such grandeur.

“Windowsill” unfurls in a similar manner, but its development is more wave-like — the music swelling and receding — than “Intervention’s” bell curve. Driven by a dull, repeating guitar pattern, “Windowsill” starts like one of Bruce Springsteen’s angst-y numbers from the “Nebraska” album. Butler sings lyrics rife with apocalyptic images of a Noah-sized flood that serve as an allegory on the band’s surging fame. “Been kicking up sparks/We set the flames free,” he sings about the group’s achievements that ultimately unleashed this feared fate. Strings again play a large part in the arrangement as the song reaches its climax, but quiet horn accompaniment and a snappy 2/4 drumbeat injects energy just when the imagery turns too morose.

“Keep The Car Running” also does an excellent job of balancing dark and light elements. Butler again sings with conviction as he burns with feelings of claustrophobia and powerlessness. The protagonist in the song might be a prisoner or a rock star confined by his rigid touring schedule, but the anxiety about being a captive is the same (at least in his mind.) Partnered with Butler’s bleak whining is a gleeful, “Battle Of Evermore”-style rave-up consisting of mandolin, bass and guitars.

Interspersed with all the prog-rock crescendos on “Neon Bible” are moments when the group’s New Wave influences become more dominant and the music is more straigh-forward. “No Cars Go” and “The Well And The Lighthouse” are the disc’s most direct. The tight, plucked guitar/bass rhythms and driving drumbeat on both recall New York band, Interpol. With fewer instruments to compete for space, the group adds echo-y layers of vocals by Butler, his wife and band multi-instrumentalist Regine Chassagne and others. The songs go their separate ways when they both reach the bridge. “The Well And The Lighthouse” momentarily slows into a string-laden ’50s heartbreaker before easing into the conclusion. The bridge on “No Cars Go” has a breakdown that strips down to Butler and Chassagne dueting before the music picks up again with an extended accordion solo, high-pitched, fluttering guitar, a merciless drumbeat and the required strings.

The complexity of these tracks reveal Arcade Fire’s greatest strength: their skill as arrangers. The group’s music is dense and well-orchestrated to achieve a particular mood, providing a sonic pathway for listeners to get sucked into the track’s story.

If there’s a weakness on “Neon Bible,” it is that the group’s ambitions outpace listeners’ endurance. They stack scores of instruments so as to sometimes weigh the songs down with too much information and too much emotion too often. Again, taking the album in parts, a song or two at a time, will go far to immunize listeners against this.

Beyond purely musical terms, however, the Arcade Fire’s arrangement skills also underscore their deep understanding of what can move and motivate an audience. Their intense music on “Neon Bible” reflects this unique appreciation. Their ability to meticulously infuse passion into the songs doesn’t mean that they’re phonies. Instead, it highlights the fact that the band members are performers of the first class. They know what needs to be done in the spotlight.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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