Arcade Fire, St John's, Smith Square, London

An avalanche of sound that shames heavy metal bands

Andy Gill
Tuesday 30 January 2007 01:49

Despite its unpromising origins in a succession of family bereavements, Arcade Fire's Funeral wedged its way firmly into many hearts a couple of years ago, placing high in many year-end polls.

On the evidence of a few hearings, the follow-up Neon Bible represents a substantial improvement on that debut, which I suppose means it's a serious contender for album of the year. Certainly, the new material has enough instant melodic appeal to surmount the uneasiness that usually greets a set comprised largely of unfamiliar songs.

St John's, the church-turned-concert-hall in Smith Square, is more frequently the venue for string quartets and choral recitals, but proves acoustically solid enough to handle the more testing barrage of an amplified band whose membership seems to grow each time one looks. At first, I count seven, before realising there's another chap hunched over the glockenspiel.

Then later on, it appears there's actually nine - and that's before the horn player adds a few well-placed lungfuls to the later stages. By now, they're probably well into double figures.

"Black Mirror" opens the set, as it does the new album, in a miasmic haze of sound. With Régine Chassagne adding hurdy-gurdy to the two violins, the result is not so much a string section as a drone section, providing the woozy undercurrent on which the song floats.

It's followed, after a bustle of instrument-swapping, by the album's most obvious single "Keep The Car Running", whose bouncy, momentum is punctuated here and there by massed choral interjections from the front line.

Chassagne switches from hurdy-gurdy to accordion for "No Cars Go", to similar droning effect, but providing a more dominant aspect of the melodic hook. As with much of the set, when the song builds to its fullest, fattest sound, with all eight, nine, or however many of them there are hammering away at the riff, it's like riding an avalanche, a solid, unstoppable flow of sound that would shame the most determined of heavy metal bands.

Halfway through the set, one of two stand-mounted megaphones starts squealing madly. Frontman Win Butler takes the audience laughter with aplomb, chiding their chuckling at this "serious piece of equipment". "I don't come to your house and laugh at you when your remote control's not working," he smiles.

Perhaps the oddest part of the set, though, comes during "Windowsill", a new song in which Butler expresses his desire to slough off the chains of expectation and heritage, and carve his own character, a process explained through a list of things he longer wants to do. Deconsecrated or not, there's still a particular frisson in hearing the line "Don't want to live in my father's house no more" in this particular setting. In its piquant self-contradiction, it seems to sum up the band's unique appeal as well as anything.

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