Arcade Fire : London Astoria, May 9
Canadian necro-romantics spellbind the capital with their vaudevillian death party
First you worry for the birds. They don’t have the best deal in rock: they’re either having their heads bitten off by Ozzy Osbourne or being mauled by some folk hippy protesting against the treatment of petunias in the East Congo at WOMAD. Tonight, two doomed lovebirds are caged within the bass drum, awaiting a short but deafening Death By Paradiddle. No Arcade Fire gig can go by without some small bereavement.
Next, you worry for your sanity. The Arcade Fire are one 1930s Germanic opium den seductress in elbow-length red gloves, one sports mistress, four pallbearers, one bellboy and a psychopathic string quintet bereft of their daily lithium. The sports mistress and the bellboy are kicking each other in the shins while murdering violins, the main pallbearer is in the middle of an epileptic episode, the drummer appears to have employed a manservant solely to stand beside him beating seven shades out of one of his cymbals and the seductress is pretending to be a broken marionette and playing a tambourine with her tits. If the Book Of Revelation had a house band, this would be it.
What we’re witnessing is the death of the Gang Band. The 50-nutters-acting-like-schizoid-Stevie-Wonders spectacle that was reborn with The Polyphonic Spree reaches a maudlin maturity tonight. Their songs often work like burial ceremonies – there’s a soft, funereal eulogy to love, grief and belonging, then someone cracks open the Chardonnay and the wake kicks off. So ‘Crown Of Love’, so ‘Tunnels’, so the symphonic cataclysm of ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ ; the sound of a gang-chanting bourgeoisie knifing the opera house seats, during which Win Butler dives into the crowd mid-solo and his wife Regine Chassagne batters the drums like The Maniacal Dove Killer Of Old Montreal Town. Classical chaos.
Or rather, theatrical chaos. Imagine an Edinburgh Fringe musical based on Franz Kafka’s The Trial, or a warped brand of Macbeth-rock. For once the muddy orchestral swamp that drowns new songs ‘Old Flame’ and ‘No Cars Go’ has been forgiven; what remains is a sinister sense of supernatural presences and wisps of dark magic. It’s there in album centrepiece ‘Wake Up’ – an ode to the rot of innocence that, with its pounding boot stomp sounds like The Polyphonic Spree ascending to the mothership at the very moment a tear gas-wielding army beats down the gates to their compound. It’s there in the sweet cauldron roil of ‘Haiti’, as pleasant a ditty about genocide as you’ll ever hear until Saddam takes up skiffle. And it’s there in Regine’s Björkish operatic wails of “Alice died!/In the night!” on the final ‘In The Backseat’, her body contorted into a human Munch painting as Win picks out a lullabyish piano lament and the string section stops kicking each other long enough to be luminescent.
As it swells to a climax, Regine wanders the stage touching each band member with her scarlet-gloved fingers, hypnotising each. Her spell cast, she drifts offstage, leaving only the doves flapping in her wake. Like the rest of us: stunned, but defiantly alive.