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Track-By-Track

Arcade Fire's Reflektor Reviewed Track-By-Track
Julian Marszalek , October 15th, 2013 07:47

Julian Marszalek sits down in elegant surrounds for a first listen to Arcade Fire's fourth album

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The levels of secrecy and security surrounding the release of subsequent Arcade Fire albums have long suggested the band have discovered a cure for cancer. While smokers are still taking their lives in their own hands, the subterfuge employed here is no different. Invited to a swank subterranean club in Marylebone, The Quietus makes itself comfortable among the kind of sumptuous cushions and dim lighting that suggest an upmarket session of opium ingestion might be in order. No such luck of course but our hosts make your scribe as comfortable as possible for the 80-minute journey into sound that is Arcade Fire’s fourth album, Reflektor.

Reflektor

So unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few weeks with no access to radios or the internet, you’ll already be familiar with this teaser from Arcade Fire’s fourth long player. Oh, you have? Riiiight. Well, what we have here is a stylistic shift for the Montreal ensemble that employs the production talents of DFA’s James Murphy alongside long-term partner-in-crime Markus Dravs and marks a clear move to the dancefloor. Ushered in by undulating synths that give way to dance beats and a pumping bass, the track also highlights the talents of one David Bowie who is heard grinning around the five-minute mark. ‘Reflektor’’s extended coda pauses to doff its cap to New Order before legging it with Peter Hook’s bass riff from ‘Perfect Kiss’ and transposing it to piano.

We Exist

The move to the dancefloor is very much in evidence here courtesy of ‘Billie Jean’’s four-to-the-floor beat that drives this track along. Slashed and reverberated guitars recall the work of Simple Minds before they decided they’d quite fancy having a go at being U2 and the throbbing bassline is rather worryingly reminiscent of Bon Jovi’s paean to blue-collar life, ‘Living On A Prayer’. And who said that mash-ups are a thing of the past? “Down on your knees/ Begging us please/ Praying we don’t exist,” sings Win Butler over the throb. But exist they do. We know because Butler tells us so. “We exist,” he confirms. And it’s in the song title.

Flashbulb Eyes

Fame, as a wise man once mused, puts you where things are hollow. And yes, the David Bowie influence is keenly felt on this meditation on the soul-sapping perils of a high public profile, specifically, his ill-advised flirtation with reggae circa Tonight and so it is that quite a few moves here are also cribbed from the mid-70s output from Jamaica. The deep bassline moves in and out of the skittering processed beats and electro drums while a Studio 1-type piano plonks away in the background while the overall track is drenched in reverb and echo.

Here Comes The Night Time

Segueing from its predecessor, ‘Here Comes The Night’ continues in the same musical theme but with more of an electro groove. Very much characterised by deep and punctuating keyboard stabs, tickled guitars and a piano break that attempts to ape the sound of steel drums, you almost feel threatened when Win Butler sings, “When we hear the beat from the street then they lock door.” Bim!

Normal Person

Probably the most interesting track on the album, ‘Normal Person’ is welcomed by the sound of concert crowd and a voice crying out, “Thanks for coming out tonight!” Once again, this is another groove based track underpinned by huge beats that also owes a debt to Bowie’s Lodger thanks to a snaking guitar line that Adrian Belew would be proud of.

You Already Know

Jazz dub, anybody? If Lee Perry had been allowed to remix 80s pop jazzers Matt Bianco and then pumped the results with steroids, protein shakes and raw steaks then the results would be in spitting distance of this. Once again swathes of echo and delay are employed, this time with the added dimension of backward sweeps that might get conspiracy theorists taking to the internet. It’s the easily the most pop based song here but it’s questionable as to how this might sound on the radio.

Joan Of Arc

The punk rock intro proves to be something of a red herring as the track soon morphs into a glam racket and there’s not much difficulty in imagining thousands of brickies in smeared make-up stomping their stack heels in the opening half of a North London derby in the days of Bertie Mee. The multi-tracked vocals are smeared in reverb while Regine’s voice is seemingly sent spiralling through a Leslie cabinet. The production here and throughout has the dense consistency of a foggy day in Iceland and the bass is especially prominent here.

Here Comes The Night Time II

The moodiest and most minimal number on the album, cellos greet the listener as Win intones, “Here comes the night again.” The strings soon build up to circular sweeps as Win laments, “It feels like it never ends – here comes the night again” before revealing, “I hurt myself again…” Whether he does this to see if he still feels is never established.

Awful Sound

Latin-type rhythms soon give way to gliding strings and slashing chords before a wave of processed beats take over. Cinematic sweeps are certainly at play here before yielding to a middle-eight that moves the track into a more drone-based territory. But then, just as you think you'e got a hang of this thing Arcade Fire then make a sharp left turn and swerve into the lush area of pop balladry.

And then, unlike most of the other tracks contained here, it comes to a sudden halt.

It’s Never Over

We’re back to the 4/4 beats again with a number that sounds like New Order commanding a tank battalion in the Battle Of The Bulge. This owes much to dance music in the broad sense as drops are deployed throughout before being blasted away by the kind of bassline that Peter Hook probably hums whilst waiting for his pizza to come out of the oven. And it certainly goes on for long enough and in the process it sounds as if Arcade Fire are remixing themselves as they go along. “It’s over too soon!” they sing at the end. They’re lying.

Porno

A synth-heavy track with programmed beats, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were listening to Macca’s ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’. Some guitars creep in and out again like the servants serving soup in Downton Abbey as Win informs us, “I know that I hurt you, I won’t deny it” before coming to an abrupt end at 6.03.

Afterlife

Even more dance influences manifest themselves with the added ingredient of very low-frequency bass and washes of keyboards. This really does give the impression of being mastered for power but the result is that a lot of the cymbals and percussion become lost as frequencies slug it out among themselves to be heard.

Supersymmetry

Clocking in at a wopping 11.17, this is a meditation on mortality as Win sings, “I know you’re in my mind/ But it’s not the same as being alive." Arpeggiated synths are stabbed with bass and the track slowly starts to build up, up, up and you’re expecting the bomb drop or just simply something to happen but sadly nothing does. Except for the six-minute coda wherein an inexperienced pair of hands are seemingly let loose on a harmoniser before having it taken away from them and then sent to bed without any supper.

Reflektor is out on October 28

Alasdair Doneghan
Oct 15, 2013 12:23pm

Hilarious; excellent work, Julian, sounds like this album can kill all manner of varmints, pests and invasive species. The only question remaining is does it really take 15 fucking people to make music this lousy? The "argument" in the states that well, yeah, they're goddamn horrendous but well, it helps Merge do lots of other interesting is borne out... where, precisely? Merge is a goddamn bore, mostly, pathetic middlebrow, upper-middle-class white pablum... I'm not, say, a Bill Callahan fan but compare Merge to what Drag City does without a fraction of that fatuous Arcade Fire lucre.

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G
Oct 15, 2013 12:31pm

So, you liked it? I know it'a only a first impression but does it strike you as something you must listen to again?

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JK
Oct 15, 2013 1:42pm

that video they did with Bono and the dude from Scott Pilgrim in a nightclub for TV a few weeks back had one really amazing song on it (Nightime), but the other two they played were a bit run of the mill - including the one you think is the best (Normal Person).

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Magnus
Oct 15, 2013 1:49pm

This band is at an interesting crossroads. They could have went shorter, poppier, and more mainstream. Think Kings of Leon, Muse, or Mumford and Sons. Something along those lines. Instead, it seems they've set out to make the greatest album from 1982 that never existed. As somebody that loves post punk, new wave, and glam I'm thrilled that a band of quality seem to be picking up where others left off decades ago. Those who were hoping for more of the Suburbs will probably be surprised but this when Arcade Fire first came out of the gate with Funeral there was Bowie and Talking Heads influence all over it so this sounds like a potential return to form for me.

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Oct 15, 2013 3:19pm

AD:

I've never once heard the argument that, "Well, they're goddamn horrendous but they help Merge do other interesting things." Arcade Fire aren't the Fast and the Furious of bands, despite your ridiculously narrow view of success and accessibility. I'm so sick of people piling up on musicians or artists because they've grown in popularity. In other genres of music success or accessibility has no barring on how a band is reviewed. Kanye West is one of the biggest stars on the planet but critics turn a blind eye to his success and just review the music as music. In rock that's never the case. Success in rock equals disrespect from critics and readers like you. Only because you present as the type who thinks only what he listens to is good and that everyone else in the world lacks taste am I going to share the following. Get over yourself. You failed as an artist not because you were making music that was challenging and inaccessible but because nobody -- nobody -- liked it. Championing small, inaccessible, low-fi acts that strum along and talk-sing sarcastically makes you feel connected to art. You love being the guy who exposes friends to new bands or acts because you think they'll associate that art with you and your taste. If you hear about any singer/songwriter with an interesting life story that's struggling and making challenging music with a little bit of sarcasm you're there. That's your band. They're the best. Everyone else that's sold anything is horrible (I guess even Bill Calahan is too big for you now). The minute that band or singer won an award or was on the cover of a magazine, or being discussed by people outside of "serious music criticism" you'd jump off that bandwagon so fast and dig your heels in deep about everything that's wrong about them. Almost every band has tons of influences that made them who they are. Pavement had "The Fall." Siver Jews experienced success that "Smog" never enjoyed. You can trace the DNA of great artists of the past in any good artist today. Ever since Funeral the Talking Heads and David Bowie influence has been apparent. It took a vacation for some Springsteen and Neil Young but it seems to be back and I, for one, am excited about that. The music from the late 1970s through the early 1980s is some of my favorite music ever. I'm not alone in that. To have another band bringing some of that back is exciting because I've listened to "Remain in Light" more times than any grown man should. Arcade Fire are blending tons of different influences together and experimenting. For a band coming off a Grammy I can think of worse things for them to be doing.

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john
Oct 15, 2013 4:57pm

You seemed to have skipped "Awful Sound" is this intentional?

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Nick Lloyd
Oct 15, 2013 5:12pm

Can't wait.

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Jeff
Oct 15, 2013 5:37pm

The Quietus comments section: just like seemingly every other comments section on the internet. Full of pompous, negative crap. I will agree on the subject of Merge, though... I vastly prefer the acts on 4AD.

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Oct 15, 2013 7:36pm

"Withering"

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Alex
Oct 15, 2013 8:33pm

Getting pretty sick of these snarky song-by-song 'reviews' on Quietus. Irrelevant and pointless, their only point seems to be attempting to debunk or discredit any music should more than a handful of people be excited about its release.

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WAHWAHWAH
Oct 15, 2013 9:54pm

terrible review... instead of taking command of the english language to convey this album, you've taken to doing the post-modern 'let's compare this to lots of other things'.

less a review, more an itune's genius recommendation... inaccurate, wrong and lazy.

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Connor
Oct 15, 2013 11:48pm

In reply to Alasdair Doneghan:

Merge might not be the most exciting label but they have Destroyer and that makes up for a lot

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Nick Southall
Oct 16, 2013 3:20pm

Several things.

Firstly, this: "In other genres of music success or accessibility has no barring on how a band is reviewed. Kanye West is one of the biggest stars on the planet but critics turn a blind eye to his success and just review the music as music." is one of the most deranged things I've ever read; the entire critical narrative regarding Kanye for at least his last two albums (and probably, actually, the last four, if not everything since his debut) has been about the fact that's he's absolutely massive and wealthy and famous. Hell, his actual albums are all about how massive and wealthy and famous he is, he just gets a free pass from certain sections of the press (for various reasons I won't go into here). Arcade Fire are also one of the most acclaimed and well-reviewed bands in the world, just in case anyone didn't notice that.

Secondly, these track-by-track pieces aren't reviews by their very nature; they're reportage, initial exposures, missives back from the frontline of who's received what promo or found which leak or been to whatever listening party. They're not meant to be a critical assessment of a piece - that kind of rumination and opinion comes later when the dust has settled - but rather an introduction to what they sound like. Sadly, reductively, the quickest and easiest way to do that is usually to compare things to other things. This is how much of criticism, nay, much of communication in general, works. These pieces are also incredibly difficult to write if the exposure they're based on is a listening party, which is the case here; Julian probably only head the record once, in a room with other people, under embargo, etc etc. Forming conclusive opinion or meticulous description under those circumstances is impossible.

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Nick Southall
Oct 16, 2013 3:21pm

In reply to Nick Southall:

Which is to say that I think Julian did a great job.

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w
Oct 16, 2013 8:53pm

Why did you even bother to write this? You basically described each track, why? So we can picture the album and be like, 'oh okay, I think I've got the idea, I don't think I'll need to listen to it after this.'

I get you only listened to it once, but rather than wasting people's time with this you could try and write something slightly constructive or descriptive in a way that convey's the idea of the album, rather than 'this track sounds like x and y, and in this other track they've clearly gone back to their influence from z'.

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Magnus
Oct 16, 2013 9:07pm

In reply to Nick Southall:

My comments regarding critical backlashes against rock bands growing in popularity had nothing to do with Julian's track-by-track report. I was responding to Alasdair Doneghan's comments which inferred that Julian hated the album and then went on to suggest that Arcade Fire are only there to earn money for Merge so that Merge can promote more deserving artists elsewhere. I thought that was ludicrous specifically because when Merge first signed Arcade Fire there was absolutely nothing to guarantee that they would grow to the extent that they have. Furthermore, he seemed only interested in bands that were less accessible as though less accessible equals "better." I agree that Julian's descriptions were a pleasure to read. His encyclopedic knowledge of different musical eras and genres was put to good use on an album that seems like it might be one of the most musically diverse albums of the year. Having said that, and giving credit where it's due, I encourage you to read thisisfakediy's track-by-track descriptions which are less smug and dismissive and far more descriptive. They were able to describe sounds with adjectives and adverbs without implying that everything reminded them of something else and seemed less concerned with showcasing just how much music they've listened to over the years and more interested in describing how all the influences on this album seem to combine in unique ways that separate them from the influences directly. Every artist or band finds inspiration or influence from the past; nothing's really ever "new" any more and there's plenty of gold left to be mined from the sounds first established in the 60s, 70s and 80s (which in many cases were influenced from world music well before then).

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Oct 16, 2013 9:14pm

In reply to w:

I disagree. While I find the DIY descriptions more descriptive and less smug I think describing the music is about all one can ask for from a "first listen." Many great albums are growers so there's no way he or any listener would be able to determine where this album ranks in comparison to their past releases without more time with it.

Every Arcade Fire album released has improved with more listens. I suspect this will be similar because tees guys often write 2-3x the amount of songs that will actually appear on each album, pair down the bests from the rest (presumably with feedback from close friends or trusted colleagues) and then take enough time to rewrite until it's at the very least good and often great.

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Todd Chapman
Oct 16, 2013 9:18pm

I visit The Quietus on the regular. However, I'm not sure I will continue to endorse this blog any longer due to the tone of this "track-by-track" reveiw. No one should have a problem with dissenting views in music. It's what makes music disocurse so interesting. But the sarcastic "pat-yourself-on-the-back-cleverness" of this writing just came across as glib and, as a result, the whole process of reading this was one of annoyance when it should have been entertaining. Boo to the writer. Poor job.

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Damian
Oct 17, 2013 8:09am

I love Arcade Fire but I have a particular (and probably irrational) phobia of the use of the "down on my knees/begging you please" couplet. I'll be getting through that track with gritted teeth.

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Oct 17, 2013 1:59pm

Quite a few butt hurt fanboys here, maybe you all invested too much hope in this band being the next great saviours (which they never were). Their success is irrelevant, they've always been a pompous bunch & they fact they've 'gone for the dancefloor' is quite telling.

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COYNE
Oct 23, 2013 8:18am

From Live videos, Supersymmetry seems like the one song that has elements of Funeral style magic.
Afterlife is also brilliant.

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Oct 27, 2013 10:59am

In reply to Magnus:

the first comment of many i read that -for me- really got reflektor, and hence, got arcade fire.
sometimes music is a bit more then it first appears. and layers, multiplicity and thoughtfulness has always been what arcade fire('s music) is all about.

i don't get that many don't get it.

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