Arcade Fire, St John’s, Smith Square London

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It is “difficult second album” time for Arcade Fire. The Canadian alt-rockers’ debut Funeral was an extraordinary calling-card. Alternately heavy and rapturous, its great swells of sound and intense vocals were rock’s equivalent of catharsis: a draining but worthwhile experience.

Now they have to repeat the trick – or rather not repeat it, because there is only so much catharsis we can take. Like lightning, epiphanies rarely strike twice. It makes the difficult second album syndrome even trickier for them.

This show in a church – an appropriate setting – was one of a series of gigs they are playing in the run-up to Neon Bible’s release next month (the other dates are in New York and Montreal, their hometown). They opened it with a neat nod to London, performing an acoustic cover of The Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton”, before launching into a new track, “Keep the Car Running”, which bore an obvious debt to Bruce Springsteen.

If the first song echoed the Boss in a good way – the fierce drumming balanced by a strummed mandolin, like the calm within a storm – then the second number “Black Mirror” disconcertingly put me in mind of Meatloaf. The song was powerful and urgent, but the singer Win Butler attacked lines such as “The curse is never broken” with off-putting melodrama.

This striving for effect was also evident in the band’s baroque instrumentation. There were 10 of them on stage playing every instrument bar the kitchen sink, and the effect was overwhelming in both a positive and negative sense.

It was rousing when the different elements came together as on “No Cars Go”, a sublime tumult of accordion, guitar feedback and violins.

But at other points the monotonously pounding beat and vertiginous layers of sound resembled a bludgeon. “Now I’m overcome,” Butler sang with passion on one song – I was too, though that is not meant as an unvarnished compliment.

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