Don’t look now, but a conglomeration of Canadian musicians who play a mix of baroque indie pop, recently spiced up with electronic dance music and Caribbean grooves and flourishes, is on its way to being the biggest rock band in the world.
Arcade Fire, performing at Quicken Loans Arena on Sunday, shot into the national music consciousness a decade ago with debut album Funeral, which contained the anthemic single Wake Up. That song and its catchy chorus helped launch the indie folk movement, giving bands such as Mumford & Sons and others with unusual instrumentation (rockin’ glockenspiel, anyone?), vests and porkpie hats some time in the spotlight and on commercials, sports event bumps and anywhere else a rousing, easily sung melody is desired.
Even now, when several genres of music can make up the Top 20, Arcade Fire is an unlikely arena act. It’s made up of the creative core of Win Butler and his wife, Regine Chassagne, along with Richard Reed Parry, Win’s brother William Butler, Jeremy Gara and Tim Kingsbury.
Its new album, Reflektor, in some ways rejects its previous sound. Butler, a 6-foot-5 whirlwind of slightly awkward onstage energy (and a hardcore basketball fan) isn’t a traditional frontman even in the world of corporate-assisted indie rock. Likewise, back in 2004 the band’s grandiose sound, mixing synthesizers with acoustic instruments such as mandolin, accordion and the aforementioned rockin’ glockenspiel all tied together with Butler’s way with a melody, was an unusual and “new” sound to gain mainstream attention.
Funeral, so named because several band members had recently lost family members, immediately made Arcade Fire critical darlings. Wake Up became a surprising arena rocker, being used by the New York Rangers and a few Premier League teams. It was also licensed for use during Super Bowl XLIV, with the proceeds going to Haiti, Chassagne’s homeland, after the devastating 2010 earthquake.
Funeral made not only several best-of-the-year lists but also best of the decade, and both Rolling Stone magazine and the U.K.’s New Musical Express named it one of the best albums of all time. It was nominated for Grammys and won Juno awards (the Canadian Grammys).
The follow-up, the even more grandiose and sonically epic Neon Bible, with appearances from a military choir and a full orchestra, continued the band’s meteoric rise. It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts and reaffirmed the band’s status as a critical favorite and progenitor of an increasingly popular sound. Again, Arcade Fire peppered best of the year lists, receiving another Grammy nomination for best alternative album and topping charts around the world.
The Suburbs was released in 2010, filled with lyrics based on Butler’s remembrances of growing up as a kid in suburban Houston. It was the band’s first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, and won a surprise Grammy for Album of the Year, beating out entries from Eminem, Lady Gaga, Lady Antebellum and Katy Perry. The Suburbs also won the prestigious Canadian Polaris Prize.
A sure sign your band is doing something right is when you launch a record-label feeding frenzy; Arcade Fire’s success smoothed the road for Fleet Foxes, Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers and others.
In 2013, Arcade Fire released Reflektor, a 75-minute double album with a baker’s dozen songs, easily the band’s most eclectic-sounding record to date. Recorded in Louisiana and Jamaica, the album was heavily informed by Butler’s love of the film Black Orpheus. Before the sessions, Butler and Chassagne visited her Haitian homeland and participated in Carnival for the first time as a couple, adding a heap of new elements to the band’s sound and Butler’s lyrics.
Songs such as Flashbulb Eyes and Here Comes the Nighttime incorporate elements of dub, while Normal People is a relatively straight-ahead rocker with Butler’s ode to nonconformity: “Is anything as strange as a normal person, Is anyone as cruel as a normal person,” he sings. Both the bouncy You Already Know and the thumping Joan of Arc recalls ’80s indie rock and dark wave, while the toe-tapping Chassagne-led It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus) rides a mechanized groove and some soulful chanting background vocals.
For the Reflektor tour the band has stepped up its onstage game, ensuring its already arena-sized sound is matched with arena-sized visuals for a two-hour-plus, 20-song set. They have suggested fans show up in formal attire or crazy costumes (another Haitian Carnival influence) and onstage the band balloons to a dozen members. In addition to the massive main stage adorned in metallic and reflective materials, there is a separate floating, hydraulic stage for quieter moments such as Butler and Chassagne’s show-opening duet on My Body Is a Cage. There are giant mirrors, confetti, and during the encore Butler wears a giant papier-mâché mask.
For a band that seemingly began as pop music outliers, Arcade Fire’s commercial and critical success should be encouraging to young musicians who don’t want to be famous rappers, country-pop stars or mainstream pop tarts.