Win Butler and Josh Deu were the founding force in the very early incarnation of Arcade Fire having met at the prestigious New Hampshire school, Phillips Exeter Academy. Texan Butler struck up a friendship with Chassagne during rehearsals at McGill University in Montreal. She and Butler married in 2003. Their self-titled debut was recorded in Maine with Butler’s younger brother Will adding a dynamic element to their sound and image. The EP’s best-loved song “No Cars Go” would be re-recorded later for Neon Bible. In any case while this wasn’t as polished as later releases it includes many of their most notable elements: a variety of keyboards, clarinet, banjo and all manner of exotic percussive effects.
If that debut hinted at what was to come then Funeral delivered the lot. Generally acknowledged to be a modern classic and a must-hear disc if it passed you by (how?) then discovery won’t go amiss now. Other core members featured here areTom Kingsbury on bass and guitars, Richard Reed Parry – a force of nature in his own right who plays just about everything and produces and engineers – violinist Sarah Neufeld and others. All the tracks are outstanding with the three “Neighbourhood” pieces containing all the rhythmic thrust and lyrical power that characterise classic Fire. The most famous song is probably “Wake Up” (over 10 million hitters on YouTube can’t be wrong) but “Rebellion (Lies)” runs it close with a throbbing Joy Division inflected bass line and an overarching Gothic mood that simply pulls you along. It has become their natural concert finale and remains one of the greatest indie anthems of recent years.
Still on Merge Arcade Fire made Neon Bible with producer Markus Dravis in Quebec, London, New York and Budapest and hit all the buttons from claustrophobic panic to full blown grandiose endeavour. More baroque than rock and roll in the old sense the songs here take a not too cool look at America via communications media and incorporate strands of Americana via Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Presley: tradition updated. The folky and spooked “Keep The Car Running” could almost have been on Born to Run, if that album had met Talking Heads Fear of Music. What makes it tick, since tick over it does? Chassagne’s hurdy gurdy rhythm is essential but so are the almost buried in the mix guitars and strings. Needless to say Bruce and Arcade’s Win Butler and Chassagne have played it together in Ottawa and Foo Fighters have it covered.
Just as esoteric is “No Cars Go”; released on 7” vinyl, while the mind-boggling “Intervention” has a hymnal quality that belies its bleak lyric. Dealing with spiritual scams in general and the folly of the gullible in particular Neon Bible is itself an addictive charmer and a huge favourite in the UK where over 300,000 purchasers have kept the faith.
The major label debut The Suburbs hit the heights in the UK and US. Offering over an hour of music this needs to be checked on the Deluxe edition where Arcade Fire collaborate with David Byrne on “Speaking in Tongues” (a Talking Head album title but not an actual track by them). With Neufeld now fully integrated into the writing and compositional process and Jeremy Gara bossing the drum kit this is the band’s most percussive and playful disc with a lyrical slant drawn from the Butlers childhood in The Woodlands, Texas (some of it was recorded with Drakus in Austin). With its careful and clever metaphors dealing with life in the 20th and 2st centuries and an inevitable nostalgia surrounding the brilliant “Ready to Start”, “City With No Children” and the bizarrely simplistic yet ambiguous “We Used To wait” this is a disc that repays reinvestigation.
So to Reflektor, released 2013, whose secretive influences include Chassagne’s Haitian roots, dashes of philosophy and the movie Black Orpheus. Part produced by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy this time the barrage of instrumentation creates an electronic and heavy atmosphere. Bowie returns to add a vocal to the title cut – he was much taken by the song’s rhythmic ambition – and Owen Pallett’s usual arranging skills augment a disc that became their second #1 in the UK and the US. The human rights track “We Exist” and the dreamy “Afterlife” are as challenging as anything from Butler’s pen and the band excel on a sprawling 2-CD set that encompasses everything from concertina and glockenspiel to celeste and mandolin. It’s a form of classic world music wrapped up in 85 minutes plus of essential noise with deep danceability and elements of British 80s rock.
No new album is in the pipeline at time of writing but given their usual modus operandi the fifth Arcade Fire disc could be set for 2016. We are certain it will be worth the wait. In the meantime there’s plenty of opportunity to discover a wealth of good stuff and cherish those anthems again.
Words: Max Bell