Reflektor Review…Burning Brightly

November 5th, 2013

imagesThere is perhaps no greater role model for the counterculture than the concept of the indie band. In an era when it can be easy to dismiss modern music as adhering to a uniform polished and poppy sound, indie bands offer a unique and interesting sound that differs from what might receive heavy airplay on a Top 40 station. It’s already a struggle to make oneself known and stand out in the music industry, so it’s all the more celebratory when an indie band is able to succeed in the mainstream marketplace. This success does come with a price, however; being accepted by the mainstream music-loving masses can lead to fears of selling out or losing the beloved unique sound in favor of a more mainstream feel. It is in this situation where we find the Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire, perhaps the best example of the indie band success story in recent memory.

Beginning life in 2001 as another name in the marketplace, Arcade Fire grabbed the attention of the music world by releasing their critically acclaimed debut album Funeral in 2004. This excellent start to their career would serve as a sign of things to come, and Funeral received two equally excellent and critically acclaimed follow-ups, Neon Bible in 2007 and The Suburbs in 2010. Perhaps the best sign of just how far their success has carried them is the fact that The Suburbs netted them the 2011 Grammy for Album of the Year, and if people didn’t know who Arcade Fire was before, they certainly did after that moment. If that wasn’t enough, their musical involvement with the wildly successful 2012 movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is enough to make any fan of the Montreal-based band proud. But has the band begun to rest on their laurels in light of this success? That’s the question to be asked when Arcade Fire releases their fourth studio album, Reflektor, on October 28, 2013 to an expectant audience. To those fans who were worried if Arcade Fire would be able to release an excellent successor to their previous albums, rest assured: Reflektor proves that there’s still plenty of fuel left in this fire.

The previous albums released by Arcade Fire have had a tendency to be solemn in tone, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that Reflektor is lighter in tone. This isn’t a bad thing, since one of the defining characteristics of Arcade Fire is their tendency to mix up their sound and add new creative flairs between album releases. In their latest album, Arcade Fire has opted for a double album layout with two different sounds between the two discs. The first disc is more rock-oriented and definitely lighter in tone, while the second disc utilizes a larger variety of instruments and reminiscent of earlier efforts like Funeral and Neon Bible in terms of tone. While certainly surprising, it didn’t take me long to grow accustomed to their new sound once the lead track “Reflektor” started playing.

It really highlights the strength of a band when they are able to branch out and play a variety of styles in excellent fashion without completely abandoning what made them great in the first place, and it is here is where Arcade Fire shines. Tracks like “Here Comes the Night Time” and “Joan of Arc” do an excellent job of demonstrating the rock sound prevalent throughout the first half of the album in addition to being catchy and enjoyable, while tracks like “Here Comes the Night Time II” and “Afterlife” do an excellent job of employing a more serious sound and reminding longtime fans why they fell in love with the indie band in the first place. That being said, if you have listened to any of Arcade Fire’s previous album, prepare for a bit a surprise. Reflektor can be solemn at times, especially on the second disc, but on the whole it’s less funereal in terms of sound and tone.

Double albums are tricky to pull off due to the added challenge of maintaining quality among both discs without leaving the listener with a sense of fatigue, as if the album is something that the listener has to slog through. To their credit, Arcade Fire do a good job of encompassing a large variety of songs with different tones in the album, which is no easy feat given the length of the album. Something that I found interesting about the album is the tone between the discs. The first disc utilizes a more rock sound and sounds At 14 songs, it’s slightly shorter than previous effort The Suburbs and its tracklist of 16 songs – 20 if you include bonus tracks – but Reflektor is easily the longest album put out by Arcade Fire, clocking in at 75 minutes and 14 seconds. Some of the songs do stand out more than others, which is not entirely unexpected, but there is one bizarre inclusion that I feel deserves mention. Before the lead track and current single “Reflektor”, there is a hidden track aptly named “Reflektive Age (Hidden Track)”. At 10 minutes and 2 seconds, it’s the second longest track on the album, with “Supersymmetry” taking the number one spot at 11 minutes and 17 seconds.

It’s a hidden overture of samples and outtakes culled from the rest of the album and shows up only on the CD release, unless of course you use dubious methods to listen to your music. Frankly, it’s placement feels strange when compared to the other offerings and I’m not sure why it’s on the disc, especially when it sounds like my Super Nintendo is on the fritz.

As far as other songs standing out, the song “Flashbulb Eyes” did little to leave an impression on me, which isn’t helped by it being the shortest song on the album at 2 minutes and 42 seconds. The length of the songs can be problematic for some, especially the song “Supersymmetry”. It’s the longest song on the album and by far the longest ever put out by Arcade Fire, but frankly I’m not so sure it needed to be so long. While it is a nice song, I wonder if there were some way to split it into two separate songs so as to not potentially have the song wear out its welcome. Not helping matters it the fact that there’s a brief pause in the middle of the song that would have easily allowed it to be split in two. On the plus side, Arcade Fire does mix up the sound after this interlude, so it doesn’t feel like “Supersymmetry” is a repetitious song. That being said, the second half of the song sounds like a random assortment of instruments and electronic noises as if it were some weird message being transmitted through a radio.

By far, however, the songs that stood out the most for me were “Reflektor”, “Joan of Arc”, and “Here Comes the Night Time II”. “Reflektor” was the first single from this album, and it’s easy to see why it’s been so popular in the weeks leading up to the album’s release. It’s an eclectic offering of sounds and styles that neatly encapsulates the concept of Arcade Fire as a whole, and having the legendary David Bowie for guest vocals doesn’t hurt it in the slightest. Despite clocking in at 7 minutes and 34 seconds, every second feels absolutely essential and not one moment has been wasted for the sake of filler. “Joan of Arc” provides a nice way to round out the first disc with its excellent beat and catchy rhythm.

This is by far the most rock-heavy song I have heard from Arcade Fire, but that’s not a bad thing. It provides a nice way to round out the first disc’s rock-oriented nature and comes away sounding absolutely fantastic in the process. The follow-up song “Here Comes the Night Time II” is the first song on the second disc and serves as an excellent introduction to a more melodic and slower-paced second half. Anyone who enjoyed the slower-paced songs of Arcade Fire will feel right at home with this song and what it promises for the second disc of Reflektor.

It can be easy to dismiss the success story of Arcade Fire as another indie band selling out to adopt a more mainstream image. Reflektor does a great job of proving why you shouldn’t dismiss Arcade Fire as just another face in the crowd and demonstrates that the band hasn’t lost a step after 12 years of existence. The wide variety of songs and styles on display here demonstrate the strengths of Arcade Fire and highlight just how far the band has come since releasing Funeral in 2004. Fans of their previous offerings have a lot to enjoy here, while fans of indie rock or those seeking an alternative to today’s mainstream music should look no further than Reflektor. Well done, guys. Here’s hoping the fire doesn’t go out anytime soon.

-John Martinez



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