Monday, 28 October 2013

Arcade Fire - Reflektor


As I've mentioned in brief spots in the past, I'm a victim to the humble curiosity of an album cover. It was on a certain Saturday afternoon in a book shop some six years ago (it was the top floor where all the CDs were based if you're already confused) that I spotted an open book lit in neon tubing. It might have been my nature for liking particular modes of imagery; it might have been as simple as the #2 plastered above the rack in reference to its chart placement; it could perhaps have been something more. For whatever reason, that was my first journey (let alone discovery) into the baroque-come-alternative sound of Montreal's Arcade Fire. And while I grew to admire Neon Bible's darkly swatch of alternative rock and baroque pop, The Suburbs in 2010 was where the group found their driving narrative - both a grand detail of outer-city childhood as much as it was a lavish accoustic-led ensemble of mood and tone. But despite the stylistic changes from one record to the next, what gives Arcade Fire their appeal and their respect - and what I'd like to believe as the reason for their Grammy win for their grand opus three years ago - was the ease at which the band fused artistry and methodology in a way that sounded neither skeltal nor bloated. Rather, perfectly matched and equated. In that respect it's lesser in surprise that Reflektor finds the Canadian outfit resuming what appears to be their endless voyage of discovery with a forth album more exuberent and upbeat than previous outings.

From the outset, a two-disc seventy-four minute record feels a little less accessible and commercial. But on the inside, as an album coaxed with contemporary disco and dance influences by none other than the meistro of millenia moving-and-shaking, James Murphy, the act of artistry and expression is clear to see. Opening (if you want to discount the unneccessary reversed sampling of the hidden pre-gap track) lead-single and title-track Reflektor quickly brushes off any suggestion of a continuing humbleness a la The Suburbs with a sound that bobbles along with 4/4 percussion at its heart, with plenty of space left with which an assemble cast of instruments make their way onto the floor. Married duo Win Butler and Régine Chassagne begin tentively soothing but soon jettison into place with a tone, like the song's choral marches, undoubtably reaching, 'I thought I'd found the connector/But it's just a reflektor'. And while this rhythmic march combined with these bubbly guitar plucks in parts definitely opens proceedings with a groove and a kick, the problem with this track lies not on its delivery, but more its continuation of such delivery. Though the use - be it out-of-focus and complimentary - of the squawking acid synths or bellowing saxophones neither hits me nor makes me squirm, the way it on for a further four minutes with barely any expansion or evolution, ends up grating how effective the previous three minutes have been built up to be. Even Bowie's one-line cameo isn't enough to demand extra attention. If anything, it feels unwanted and pointless.

In much the same fashion then, We Exist lavishes the listener with something of an extravagance of close-net performance with its compressed bass and clear drum beats. Butler & Chassagne's harmony is once more on top form as the two dance around the buzz and fuss of instrumentation in as much the same disco-flavoured fasion of previous. At this point it's clear that lyrics aren't necessarily going to reach the same layered or emotive heights as previous albums, 'Get down on my knees, begging us please/Praying that we don't exist'. And while this wouldn't cause as big a problem for other bands, what bugs me is that Butler's placement seems to portray a sign of clear intent to be at the front of the performance no matter what. It begins to strain especially when the track later crunches and wraps its way int knots with Butler's vocals caught nfrtunately at mid-drift. More-so in the closing stages when the bass takes lead and the production seems to limp awkwardly to the finish line with mashes of feedback. Fortunately, as Flashbulb Eyes wonderfully demonstrates with its shortening of duration, Arcade's partially-distorted, partially-contorted stance, there's a target in sight to hit in balancing the new-found emphasis on groove with the band's shoulder-bobbing, headnodding focus on bass leads and percussion that feels all-encompassed and universal than altogether background centred.

With this in motion, the rawdy transition to Here Comes The Night Time ignites this stage-performance linger, but doesn't fully implement it. Even with the immediate slow-down of what is a tense percussion and audacious guitar pacing, there's a charm in the introduction of jokingly bumbling piano bars. Musically, the stability and the constancy of rhythm works. Lyrically however, for Butler's own showing to fall down to repeating lines like 'Here comes the right time/here comes the night time' which is followed by a teasing 'They say heaven's a place/Yeh heaven's a place and they know where it is' that's answered with: 'But do you know where it is? It's behind a gate that won't let you in' not only draws bafflement, but its very inclusion feels irreleavnt and shoulder-shrugging. It wouldn't bother me as much had Butler's lyricism on ascension and (as earlier tracks have alluded to) going over the potential state he and the band might lie in socially, been as sarcastic or joking as the lines to Normal Person contain. For a track that sees Butler taking the band to the most extreme of live locale - the atmosphere and enclosure of the space flooding my mind with visions of a bar or perhaps a tiny venue with a stage and barely no floorspace - 'Do you like rock and roll music' to me paints Butler as being deliberately characture and frustrated, 'Because I don't know if I do'. It leads him then to question and even show a disdain against the rule of normality, 'They will break you down until everything is normal now'. And while his unconvincing rule of rhyming and word-pairings aren't anymore prolific, the surgent energy of the track's guitar rock sound at the very least works to Butler's cynically questioning favour, 'If that's what's normal now, I don't want to know'.

The surprise is almost non-existant then when I find Jonathan 'wossy' Ross being sampled to amplify the feeling of a live performance at the beginning of the riggedy accoustics of You Already Know even if the effect is not only short-lived but placed unfavourably at a time where Joan Of Arc romps onto stage with a sonic atmosphere a lot more filling and rowdier that it seems rather more suited to the compositions that have come before. Butler's delivery follows in the same line of arm-waving, vocal chord-straining cries in a track that sticks close to its disco leanings but merits enough of a backbone to let it expand its percussion leads and bass that once more swarms the mixdesk, unfortunately, like a vast unescapable smog. So it's onto the second-disc that we find Arcade Fire - surprisingly on a musical stand-point but not so when you look at it from the artistic perspective of it being 'the beginning' of the second half - strip away the hooks and the drums for Here Comes The Night Time II and instead replace it with a confusing mix of spectral violin strings and distorted feedback that lacks the underlining fidelity or direction that previous tracks at the very least alluded to. Coming to the following pairing of tracks which in name reference the two mythological beings presented on the album's sleeve, Arcade Fire's intent is at its most fractured and least convincing more-so. Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) despite offering an interesting texture of percussion, not only lacks the essence and passion of deivery, but feels forced into a length that doesn't at all suit its hollow personality. It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus) soonafter is just as under-baked via its looser focus and fainter emphasis on instrumentation.

So to add Porno to the mix, which is perhaps Arcade Fire's most non-Arcade Fire sounding track of their career thus far, seems at this point suicidal in its majorly electronic-driven slow-groove. But the beauty is in its desired slow-down of pace - beaming synthesizers and crisp drum machines sprinkled atop a track that caresses the space rather than artistically exhibits it. Though while the wavey nod of rhythm and groove is attractive in a piece that rises and falls in swatches of electric strings and layering, Butler's vocals are anything but. 'I know I hurt you, I won't deny it/When I reach for you, you say I'm over it' epitomize the shallowness of Butler's lyrics and the hollow detail with which he plays with to interject personality in a track demanding a more personal and emotive dressage to its sleek, seductive structure. Afterlife while still borrowing from Murphy's dance-punk/DFA flair, is by far one of the better balances of Arcade's high-stakes take on performance and James Murphy's production know-how. And even if the disco-like drums remain dominant, it doesn't drive away or discourage the band from letting loose with choral sections that uplift and breathe a natural life into a predominantly glittering synthesis of rhythm and pace. But again even as Supersymmetry attempts to conjure some kind of suggestive send-off in its low-key percussion and vocal harmonics, Arcade Fire's message feels all too lost in its own depth. There are some brighter, more clearer introductions of spidery organ notes and synthesizers bubbling in the mix that lift the track from out the swamp it seems to lay low in, but throughout the [title song's] near-six minute concentrate, the objective is never lit or even hinted as being approached. More-so, as the album ends on a tape-reeling whirl of electronic feedback and synthesizer mumblings, the intention is lost evermore to the supposed ideaology...but sadly, is without objectifiable identity.

This isn't something they should be having trouble with given their discography has offered us some of the most subjective and fashionable of alternate rock records in the past ten years. Unfortunately, Reflektor pushes for conviction and persuasion in such a way that means lengthening and substantiating to the sacrifice of its content - landing Arcade's march forth the many missteps throughout. Where the favour is more on pushing this forging of differing musical orientations between artist and producer forward, neither party seem to stand willing to console the other, nor make ammends to their own musical deeds on final mix. Not that James Murphy is to blame for the album's wrong-doing; if anything his production provides the band a smooth and distinctive flair of rhythm and groove that, at the top of its game, is surprisingly infectuous. The problem lies on what comes after, and how the band undergo the development and progression of their sound in finalizing a direction. Sadly, for a record nearing ninety minutes in length, the reality that this could easily have fallen below the fifty mark and be rid of its unwanted, overexhausted, overglamourized delve into soundscapes, shows Arcade Fire up for how invested in hollow affairs they've become. So while basking in its own artistry - but sadly, to add to the many naming ironies that have come before, standing blissfully unaware of the reflection it emanates - is a skill Arcade Fire use with remarkable ease when playing the exhibitors' role, when the role turns to that of the exhibited, the output becomes all too like many a contemporary piece: lost unconvincingly to its own pretense of depth.
~Jordan Helm

5.9

4 comments: