Sunday, March 18, 2007

Canada returns...

It has been clear for several years that the music coming from Canada - and particularly Toronto and Montreal - has to be taken very seriously indeed. When Roughtrade Records released 'Funeral', the début album from Montreal seven-piece Arcade Fire, in the UK in the spring of 2005 things happened very fast indeed.
Within weeks every newspaper and magazine that you picked up would have a review of it and the tickets to their tour dates, mostly taking place at small venues as when they were arranged nobody had heard of them, suddenly became rarer than golden eggs.
Then the reviews of these live performances appeared and the frenzy moved up a gear - here was a band that not only make a completely new style involving many classical instruments put to the ends of rather apocalyptic indie rock, but were so good at doing it that they swap their instruments among themselves while performing. The only thing rarer than live tickets, even after two years in which Funeral has continued to sell strongly, is a review that dares say a bad thing about it or their live performances!

What everyone wondered was what would they follow it up with? It is a rock on which many artists have foundered, hence the often heard phrase "difficult second album". Some bands do it by taking a huge sideways step, which is hard to pull off convincingly, others by progressing with the sound of the first album. Given the acclaim that their first was accorded and were they even minded to attempt such a thing, could it be anything other than a hollow shell in comparison to Funeral?

If this bothered the band they were not telling anyone, and certainly not giving any clues as to what the sequel would sound like, while touring in the summer of 2006. Then all of a sudden, about a two months ago, they revealed that Neon Bible would be released on their own SonoVox label and the fact that it was largely recorded in a number of churches in Québec, not least for their acoustics and a requirement for real organ. This hinted that Neon Bible would follow on where Funeral left off, which it does.

Did they pull it off? A couple of listens will soon give only one impression - that they did and with quite a lot of room to spare. If you liked Funeral then you'll will almost certainly love Neon Bible. It has everything that was good about its predecessor - only done with more scope and ambition and, well basically, done better. Win Butler's voice has less of the tortured half-scream it once had (but when it matters it still has just enough) and, while still only infrequently employed, the vocals of Régine Chassagne appear just when most they are devastatingly effective (remember 'Haiti' on Funeral). The instruments - and there are a great number and variety of them - pile up in complex and dizzying layers that somehow miraculously never collapse in to chaos.
It is largely in this skill in composing and then arranging the many improbable threads that the secret lies - it is what makes Arcade Fire sound like they do and not very much like anyone else!

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