by: Chris Thompson and Michael Shields
Arcade Fire’s latest album, Reflektor, finds the Canadian indie rock band opening themselves up to a brand new influence — Haitian rara music…..
When Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler joined his multi-instrumentalist wife Régine Chassagne on a trip to her family’s home country of Haiti, in his mind he had the majority of his musical influences set in stone. But the time spent exploring the vibrant musical culture and traditions that permeate Haiti taught Butler that he had much more to learn in the ways of music ((“There was a band I [feel] changed me musically, just really opened me up to this huge, vast amount of culture and influence I hadn’t been exposed to before, which was really life-changing.” – Win Butler, Rolling Stone)). It was Haitian Rara music that had caught his ear, a sort of festival music used for street processions and focusing on a set of cylindrical bamboo trumpets called vaksen, and its influence on the bands fourth album, Reflektor, is widely apparent.
Co-produced by LCD Soundsystem’s former frontman James Murphy ((Along with long-time collaborator Markus Draves)), it’s hard to ignore his influence on the albums stylings, especially the way in which the albums rhythm section so confidently carries the sound. Recorded primarily in Jamaica in an abandoned castle called Trident ((“The castle was built in 1979, or something, by this eccentric Jamaican dude who just wanted to hang out with royalty. And it kind of worked. After about five years he couldn’t afford to pay the bill, so it had been sitting empty for many years. I met a dude who was planning on turning it into a hotel, so we just rented it off him for cheap and there was nothing in there. We brought in some beds and a piano and some gear.” -Win Butler, Rolling Stone)), Reflektor finds its musical power in the plentitude of genre’s flowing throughout the lush, tropical lands of the Caribbean. When asked about his desire to collaborate with James Murphy, Butler replied “LCD Soundsystem to me is like New Order and the B-52’s and we deeply share a lot of those influences, and we did completely different things with it. Régine is kind of the person who dances. At any given minute, if you can get Régine to dance, you’re kind of on the right track, so I think we just wanted to make a record that Régine could dance to.” From the very first note on the albums opening track, “Reflektor”, one is overcame by the notion that this is a truly danceable album. That it’s catchy hooks and dull-thumping bass beats interspersed with the rolling, confidently leading keyboards and marching drums could easily move one’s feet to motion, sweeping the listener up into its musical arms as the humid breezes of the Caribbean’s nighttime winds swirl dreamily around.
Not only are the songs of Arcade Fire illustrative of their depth of talent but their lyrics standout as well. An examination of Reflektor’s substantial wordage will find it not only touching heavily on the themes of isolation and death, but also attempting to charm the listener into believing that our reality is deeper and far more mystical than what our eyes perceive. Inspired in part by the 1959 Brazilian film Black Orpheus, a multi-hued retelling of the Greek legend of Orpheus ((An archetype of the inspired singer.)) and Eurydice, Reflektor takes us on a melodic journey from lightness to dark as we grapple for our musical soul. Presented as a double album, Reflektor is a black and white musical tour de force distinct from the Funeral/Neon Bible/Suburbs pyramid that so succinctly defines their sound. Splitting the album into two halves, you get a sense of the disparate musical worlds found within. And if there is a bridge that links these two lively worlds together it would have to be the tracks “Here Comes the Night Time” and “Here Comes the Night Time II”. Both of these songs draw heavily on imagery of the sun setting over the water in Port au Prince, Haiti and its people rushing home to the sanctity of their hillside slums before darkness falls. In a city lacking adequate electricity, when the nighttime comes to Port au Prince is when the world of darkness and shadows stirs to awakening, and the stuff of dreams and whispered tales comes slowly to life.
Reflektor’s highly danceable opening track, the self-titled “Reflektor”, arrives abruptly, emerging from a sea of random sounds with a solidly thumping, uneasy bass beat that crashes over you like successive waves on a moonlit beach. Chassagne’s breathy, French-sung lyrics drift dreamily over the powerful dance tracks as keyboards and lofty strings pull you into ever higher circuits of intensity. Building itself rapidly with rising crescendos of heaving bass, the sound-swollen song threatens to overwhelm the listener and bury them under a thick wave of noise. And then suddenly it all drops out for a solitary instance, a momentary gasp of air that finds Win and Régine singing in duet, before the wall of sound kicks back in, dashing you against its shores as it regains its intensity. If Arcade Fire’s intention was to hit us with their version of what danceable Big Rock sounds like in this day and age, then they most certainly succeeded.
On initial listen, it’s hard not to compare the track “Flashbulb Eyes” to the musical stylings of The Clash, and their lifelong exploration of reggae and dub. A strong example of the albums Haitian influence, “Flashbulb Eyes” is playfully reminiscent of The Clash’s fourth album Sandanista!, an album that anticipated the World Music trend of the 1980’s and drew heavily from funk, reggae, jazz, gospel, dub, rhythm and blues and calypso. Mirroring the reviews for Sandistna! at the time, it is almost as if Arcade Fire said with this song “to hell with the Arcade Fire sound, there’s an entire world out there!”. Saying this track is better than any Clash song borders on blasphemy, but at the very least it just might be one of the greatest Arcade Fire songs to date.
On “Here Comes the Night Time” Arcade Fire fires up a disharmonious musical clatter and then blends it all seamlessly together. Dialing down the musical assault of the albums first three songs, “Here Comes the Night Time” switches back and forth effortlessly between roaring punk rock charges, tempo-fake outs and classic reggae saunters. With turn-on-a-dime time changes, it feels here as if Arcade Fire is desperately trying to gain entry into some lofty dance pop wonderland. Except as Butler laments with his closing words, as a maddening staccato whirlwind of drums, trumpets, and distortion echo around him — “They hear the beat from the street / If you’re looking for Hell, just try looking inside.” — you just might not like what you find inside.
Even though the first half of Reflektor sounds raw and deeply sublime, especially on the closing track, the frantic, variable-tempo rocker “Joan of Arc”, it all comes off as remarkably catchy. In choosing to close out the first movement of this album with a punk-inspired ode to the French folk heroine and Catholic saint, Arcade Fire cements their abilities to produce arena-worthy songs similar in caliber to that of U2 or Bowie.
Arcade Fire seems to be at their most emotionally affecting when they allow their melodies to breathe, and in the second movement of Reflektor this is precisely what occurs. “Here Comes the Night Time II” commences the latter half of Reflektor and introduces us to a more subtler tone than its predecessor, as this second disc echoes back to a more classic Arcade Fire sound, with pacifying melodies and uplifting grooves abounding. “Here Comes the Night Time II” binds us to the first half of the album, but we are immediately driven further from the light, deeper into the night, into the all-absorbing blanket of darkness.
Possibly the most soothing six-minute portion of Reflektor can be found in the comforting and paradoxically-titled “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)”, a melodic journey driven by jazz vamping and conga-laden percussion. Drawing inspiration from the Orpheus Myth ((The album’s cover art is a close-up of Auguste Rodin’s 1893 sculpture “Orpheus and Eurydice,”)) “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’s” chorus contains a rousing message of optimism amidst a sea of pain. It is intimately linked to its following track, “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus),” where synthesized and electronic bass beats make sweet love to one another while Butler and Chassagne’s voices meld together like bindweed. It’s a tiny microcosm of the album as a whole and it drops you off a cliff multiple times, with the lyrics, “It seems so important now / But you will get over / It seems so important now /But you will get over,” drowning you briefly in a sea of optimistic melancholy, and then catapulting you right back to that rhythmic groove that this track calls home. A perfectly balanced juxtaposition, and an example of where Arcade Fire came from and where they are now.
As the album wanes we are tossed vehemently into the violent separation and eventual reunion of the lovers Eurydice and the musician Orpheus, and by the time we reach the “Afterlife” we aren’t sure whether there is still a reason to be optimistic. “When love is gone, where does it go? And where do we go?” But, in “Supersymmetry”, the albums final, hauntingly reflective track, we are offered that soft-landing we so much needed after such a whirlwind of a ride. As Butler and Chassagne harmonize over simple arrangements we the listener are allowed a moment to catch our breath. To raise our heads somewhat and look around, blink our eyes and wonder if it all wasn’t just a dream.
Admittedly, it takes a moment to get used to the fact that Arcade Fire has now joined the ranks of the dance rock movement, seeing as Reflektor is rife with disco-beats and bluesy hooks. To date, this is their most polarizing album, but it’s relevant to point out that the band themselves have always been polarizing. The same group that brought to life such emotional, theatrical, and life affirming anthems as “Crown of Love”, “Neighborhood #3 (Powers Out)” and “Sprawl Pt. II” now find themselves in waters more commonly inhabited by greats like Depeche Mode, Joy Division, New Order and the Cure.
But just mentioning the fact that this foray into dance-inspired music is happening does not give credit to the true plunge that Arcade Fire has taken with Reflektor. The level of musical reinvention, blended seamlessly with strokes of yore, display a band as hungry and ambitious as ever. Reflektor is larger, at least in scope, than anything Arcade Fire has ever done before. On the first half of the album they come to party, shaking off any sense of grandiosity they may have previously embodied and reminding us music is simply, at its core, about having fun. On the second half of the album things become more cosmic, more airy and profound. But Reflektor as a whole finds one of the biggest bands in the world sounding as hungry as ever. The album feels huge, like an event, yet succeeds at somehow remaining grounded in what has made Arcade Fire so good in the first place – their ability to move you emotionally and uplift your spirit. In accepting whatever the world deems Reflektor finally is, and how it fits into their musical canon, the one thing that can be confidently said is that the band isn’t lying down. This album is a feat of musical prowess, a triumph of reinvention and a work of art. And as the sun goes down on another album and the nighttime comes again, it is truly apparent that Arcade Fire isn’t slowing down.