The Montreal indie rockers return with an operatic cacophony

By Jody Rosen
June 03, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
Davida Nemeroff

Even in this post-rock era—when hip-hop has a stranglehold on the zeitgeist, country commands the big record sales, and yesteryear?s rock fans are easing into retirement with Norah Jones purring on the stereo—there are still things high-minded Young Turks with guitars can do better than any other kind of musician. Arcade Fire, a septet from Montreal, have established themselves as one of the world?s great bands by harnessing rock?s unmatched power for going big and broad and vast. On their new album Neon Bible, the songs gust and spread out, like huge landscapes hurtling into view. Titles like ?Oceans of Noise? advertise the immensity of the sound, and you can detect the influence of such past masters of sonic grandiosity as U2, Phil Spector, and, in the monstrous pipe-organ drones that well up behind ?Intervention,? that 18th-century wall-of-sound specialist, J.S. Bach. But Arcade Fire bring odd musical colors to the mix (accordions, hurdy-gurdies), and their fondness for hooted, full-band sing-alongs gives the most majestic moments a scruffy indie feel—a ragtag gang making a racket worthy of an army.

As a ridiculous CD by the Killers recently reminded us, if you?re going to make epic symphonic rock, it helps to have something to say. Arcade Fire do. Their excellent 2004 full-length debut, Funeral, was personal and confessional—elegies and laments inflated into anthems—but on Neon Bible, the band turn their attention outward. ?I can?t breathe! I can?t see!/World War III, when are you coming for me?? cries frontman Win Butler in ?Windowsill.? Butler sings in a jittery yelp reminiscent of David Byrne and Robert Smith, a sound that suits songs packed with fearful tidings and images of war. But black humor seeps into even the apocalyptic songs. ?(Antichrist Television Blues)? begins with echoes of the 9/11 attacks but turns into a mischievous social satire about the father of a pop starlet: ?My girl?s 13 but she don?t act her age/…Oh, Lord, if you could see her when she?s up on that stage!?

And in the bleakest songs, the polyphonic swirl of strings, horns, and voices (arranged by Toronto indie hero Owen Pallett and Butler?s wife and co-bandleader, Régine Chassagne) points toward transcendence. Bible?s centerpiece, ?No Cars Go,? is almost utopian: ?We know a place where no planes go/We know a place where no ships go.? Is it a gospel song? A prayer for peace in a war-racked age? A 2007-model ?My Generation?? Perhaps all of the above. But what sticks with you finally is not sense but sound, the wordless operatic chorale that crests over a martial drumbeat in the song?s coda: a big, dark, churning ocean of noise. A-