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Manchester Evening News
Manchester Evening News
Nick Statham

REVIEW: Arcade Fire bring dystopian visions and euphoric anthems to Manchester AO Arena

‘Every time you close your eyes…’ sings Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler. "LIES, LIES…’ roars back the crowd, as fans swarm around a second stage in the middle of the arena on which the seven-piece band have somehow crammed themselves.

Opening with Rebellion - arguably the best song from arguably their best album (that’s the 2004 debut Funeral, for the uninitiated) - is a smart move; a near sure-fire way to get people hollering along and dancing as the song speeds to its ecstatic conclusion. As the band transfers to the main stage, a reading of poem ‘I Am Waiting’ fills the venue.

It’s from these lines by Lawrence Ferlinghetti - rather than WH Auden - that the next track, Age of Anxiety I , apparently takes its name and inspiration. Building from spare piano chords to surging string-swept rock, its lyrics obliquely reference Covid (‘fight the fever with TV…’) as well as social media artifice (‘when you look at me, you see what I want you to see’).

READ MORE : Review: Bright Eyes at 02 Apollo Manchester

The first song on new album We - named after the Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel that inspired Nineteen Eighty Four - it’s clear that Arcade Fire are far from done with the themes of post-millennial tension they explored on their previous long player ‘Everything Now’. Not that the Montrealean indie rockers don’t have somewhat more immediate concerns following support act Feist’s decision to quit the tour after fulfilling two Dublin dates.

Butler faced allegations of inappropriate sexual interactions days before the indie-rockers embarked on their world tour. An investigation by American music website Pitchfork alleged the singer behaved inappropriately and sent unwanted sexual messages to four people between 2015 and 2020.

Win Butler from Arcade Fire (back centre) (Kenny Brown | Manchester Evening News)

He has vehemently denied anything non-consensual took place, adding he was ‘very sorry to anyone who I have hurt with my behaviour’. He insists any suggestion of wrongdoing is ‘deeply revisionist and frankly just wrong for anyone to suggest otherwise’.

The gig wasn’t a sell out - but the crowd isn’t noticeably thin and enthusiasm appeared undimmed among those who did turn out. While Ready to Start doesn’t quite ignite, the crowd is soon bouncing along with arms aloft to the spectral harmonies of Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels).

Butler - these days sporting a tangle of bleach blonde hair over his trademark undercut - even manages a chuckle before Crown of Love. While Afterlife is probably the most laboured moment of the night, it's soon forgotten once the band fires up Reflektor’s disco-inspired title track, the crowd roaring their approval as Regine Chassagne takes on lead vocal duties.

Regine Chassagne (Kenny Brown | Manchester Evening News)

She also steals the show with Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) heading into the crowd with a security guard in hot pursuit as her voice soars above the song's Heart of Glass groove. The lights cut at her command and she finishes with a euphoric, ribbon-strewn dance.

There’s no denying that Arcade Fire are responsible for some of the most sublime music of the last 15 years. And tonight’s setlist - while naturally leaning most heavily on material from We - represents a good overview of their seven albums to date.

The title track from 2010’s brilliant The Suburbs gets a welcome airing, as does Modern Man from the same record. We also get We standout Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole) while the open-hearted paean of parental love Unconditional I (Lookout Kid) rounds off the main set, as towering, multi-coloured inflatables rise up around the stage.

Arcade Fire at Manchester Arena (Kenny Brown | Manchester Evening News)

The band returns to the second stage (which they have apparently christened ‘The We Stage’) for the encore, beginning with End of the Empire I-IV. It’s a nine minute Bowie-and-Beatles channelling anthem of epic proportions with endless sonic twists and, it has to be said, some of the band’s most toe-curling lyrics.

As it reaches its conclusion, it’s swiftly dismissed as ‘pretentious’ by Butler, who declares ‘it’s Saturday night’, before the band launch into a cover of New Order’s Temptation (obligatory mentions of The Smiths and Manchester’s musical heritage have been covered earlier, for anyone wondering).

The set closes with Wake Up - maybe the band’s best known song and certainly one of their greatest moments. Beginning with a grinding one-chord riff before switching into sweeping anthemics, the crowd continues to sing its celestial choral line even after the band have said their goodbyes.

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