Ten years ago Canada was the big thing in indie music. Arts & Crafts Productions was co-founded by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and therefore connected indubitably with everything the band did as a whole, as well as the individual members. Feist and Emily Haines were gaining popularity. Amy Millan bounced between Broken Social Scene and Stars, a band which, coincidentally, was also signed to Arts & Crafts. Arcade Fire had nothing to do with that particular company, but the breakthrough release of Funeral turned all eyes towards Canada to see what else lurked there.
A decade later it’s all a little quieter in that neck of the woods. Broken Social Scene have been on hiatus since 2011. Feist out-stranged herself with Metals. Emily Haines and Metric have became increasingly more synth-pop, with less substance in every release. And Arcade Fire have… while not quite jumped the shark, are definitely sitting somewhere on its back. Without all the pomp and bluster Stars are still trundling along unassumingly, gaining critical acclaim but flying very much under a radar that stopped keeping track of Canada quite some time ago. In short, the Limelight 2 – the smaller of the venues in Belfast’s Limelight complex – is barely a quarter full. By the time you’re touring your seventh studio album though, you take this kind of thing in your stride. Admitting that they haven’t been to Belfast since 2007 and they’re now in their 40s makes us warm to them and Torquil is used to making people warm to him.
Given that most of us haven’t had the chance to see Stars live before Torquil Campbell is nothing but a voice on a recording to us, a sometimes too-earnest voice that it seemed would fit better in the world of musical theatre than alongside Amy’s sweetly-voiced sadness. Live though, their viciously-lyriced theatricality rewrites Torquil as the MC from ‘Cabaret’, both snidely narrating and participating in each song’s soap opera duet. They are a partnership, voices melding in a way that the solos don’t do justice to. When they join voices, the magic begins, magic that seemed in short supply up until this point, with drums and bass overpowering everything else. We’re unsure if it’s because of a sound problem or the deliberate attempt they spoke about in press releases to “outhrob the throb” of the disco premises they recorded the album above. The sound feels more balanced when they play ‘We Don’t Want Your Body’ third, coincidentally not off No One Is Lost; the “throb” album.
‘Turn It Up’ softly brings back the ’90s with shimmering summers, an attempt to reach into memory and call to the past of the fans who didn’t show tonight. ‘You Keep Coming Up’ almost ruins the sweet, sugary rain as it meanders under standoffish synth lines, an emotionless robot of a song that we can’t quite identify with. Campbell pulls us in a little with what’s officially a falsetto but feels much closer to a soprano in depth that winds over and above the song… and then it’s over. An industrial cacophony of percussion characterises ‘A Song Is A Weapon’, with the strength of the synthetic synths forming an uncrossable barrier that loses something in the translation, the band realising there’s a somewhat flat reaction and making excuses that the “inspired by Helmet” section is, thankfully, over.
As the show nears its end it’s time for the familiarity of the past. Duets are corny but for a band who have made their living from them the heartbreak section is what we all have been waiting to hear. After Campbell powerhouses his way through ‘Trap Door’ it’s Amy’s turn to be the tragic figure from ‘Elevator Love Letter’, the song beginning with just bass and voice. She’s in parts the sultry child, at other times the songbird controlled by Campbell’s Phantom Of The Opera – at times he stands behind her like a crazed puppeteer – putting each song across with utter seriousness which belies the between-song banter.
It all ends with a triumphant rave with ‘No One Is Lost’ as nearly everyone does put their hands up “because everybody dies”, a danceable revolution for a mostly bedroom band. It’s not quite the sweetest moment though. On this night of revisiting ghosts, raising our hands to them and singing about them it’s the ghost of ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ that crunches along, driven by the drums and the memories. Perhaps the sweetest indie pop moment you never heard, because you weren’t there.