The Arcade Fire
Talk About the Passion
By the time you read this, what will likely be the most surprising phase of the Arcade Fire's career will be over. And they know it.
Up until now, Montreal's Arcade Fire have honed a shock-and-awe tactic in their live show that has sent scenesters scrambling for superlatives, and set the bloggers all abuzz. "This is the most beautiful thing about this time for the band, and it's a time that will come to an end when the record comes out," muses drummer Howard Bilerman, voicing a sentiment shared by all the band members.
By the time their debut full-length Funeral comes out on Merge Records this month, that grassroots word-of-mouth will undoubtedly escalate into full-blown hype, thanks to cover stories like these. But this isn't about trends or commercial viability. The Arcade Fire aren't the next big thing. They're a big thing, period. They harness a larger-than-life sound into five-minute pop symphonies filled with crashing crescendos, new wave dance beats, folk simplicity and operatic grandeur, all delivered with cathartic aggression and delicate tenderness.
It makes quite a first impression. "When we toured [the U.S.] with the Unicorns or do one-off shows, 95 percent of the audience has never heard an Arcade Fire song, let alone seen us, so there's no expectation," Bilerman says. "By the end of the set, it's beautiful to know that you've won over some people. Even when we play Toronto or Montreal now, it's all expectation and anticipation and there's a bar that's been set that we have to live up to."
Not that they have any trouble living up to it, under any circumstances. In late July, the Arcade Fire drove from Montreal to Chapel Hill, North Carolina for a one-off gig — mind you, they were invited by their new label Merge to headline the opening night of the label's 15th anniversary weekend, with no less than Sebadoh's Lou Barlow opening the show. (He gushed from stage about the band's sound check.) Although the Arcade Fire had played Chapel Hill once before, in June, most of the band was ill at the time, and for this command performance in front of the extended Merge family, they were determined to justify the love.
The club is packed with locals and continental rock tourists, with the stifling heat only adding to the bated breath for what will be most people's first time seeing the Arcade Fire. As expected, the band launches into the anthemic "Wake Up," a tidal wave of an opening number that begins with a chorded bass riff before exploding into a screaming chorale with the entire band operating at full throttle over a sparse beat and '50s-style classic chord structure, concluding with a coda that shifts into a driving Motown dance beat.
But after eight bars of the opening riff, bassist Tim Kingsbury breaks a bass string, stopping the song cold. Singer Win Butler immediately steps to the mic and announces, "Thank you, good night," prompting the band to exit the stage. Multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry promises, "Up next, the Arcade Fire!"
It is deflating, to say the least. Yet within minutes, the band takes the stage as if nothing happened, and once again launches into the song that routinely sends jaws dropping and sets eyes aglow. The rapt capacity crowd is pressed against the stage the entire time, their enthusiasm even prompting the odd heckle, "Are you really Canadian?" By the time singer/ keyboardist/drummer Régine Chassagne hits the stratospheric high note at the end of the emotionally wrenching epic encore "In the Backseat," everyone knows that they've witnessed their new favourite band.
It says a lot that — despite a weekend stuffed with stellar performances by Superchunk, Spoon, Destroyer, Crooked Fingers and Lambchop — people are still raving about the new Montreal band on Sunday night.
Lest you think this band arrived from nowhere on a gravy train, the road to these raves was far from easy. As recently as April 2003, the Arcade Fire had officially been dissolved, mere weeks after the release of their debut EP. Within a year, a new line-up proved to be a passionate and inspiring band, and somehow managed to harness that energy during a meticulous recording process that resulted in Funeral.
Despite the title, Funeral is more like a baptism: an arrival, an affirmation of faith, a statement of purpose. It was recorded during a time when family members were dying; in the liner notes, the Arcade Fire dedicates the album to no less than nine dearly departed, including Régine's mother and grandmother, and Win's famous grandfather, pedal steel pioneer and big bandleader Alvino Rey. In the middle of all that, Win and Régine were married last August. This is a band that has seen its share of drama, and its intensity bleeds through every note.
The template is laid out in the opening track, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)," where a sonic curtain opens to reveal an old world piano introducing the song's hook over a pulse that slowly develops into a disco beat, while the vocal melody gradually climbs higher and higher until the song eventually erupts into an ecstatic dance party with a pounding piano, synths that sound like steel drums, and apocalyptic guitars ringing like Godspeed trying to be a pop band, all wrapped around the opening hook as sung by an ooo-ing chorus of angels.
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