It's difficult to recall a one-two punch of such startlingly reassured skill as what indie art-rockers the Arcade Fire have accomplished with 2004's Funeral and its masterful follow-up Neon Bible. Who from recent years might measure up?

A cursory exploration for contenders could turn up Interpol, Kanye West, the Shins, Clipse or the Streets. Going further into the past, you could invoke Pearl Jam, Oasis, the Talking Heads or Elvis Costello. Dead-end past comparisons aside, it's indisputable that the Arcade Fire dominate the present, firmly in control of its listeners' collective passions and imagination.

Funeral was a scorcher of unwieldy sentiment, so gloriously heavy-handed that it somehow preserved the visceral ache of its emotion in unguarded form. Yet the album was not merely an emotive work. Less a commiseration than a dusky celebration of life's intractably kinetic flicker, Funeral rarely brooded, let alone submitted to sullen dejection. It never asked you to weep with it; rather it compelled you to join in its life-affirming dance.

To its immense benefit, Neon Bible plots an alternate course and avoids Funeral-redux mimicry. It's bolder, more expansive and dazzlingly messier on the production side. The arrangements retain its predecessor's inherent spirit of chamber piece intimacy but submerge it in dizzying orchestrations and taut swirls until the sounds are punch drunk on heavenly bombast. Neon Bible truly boasts sounds that will, in equal measures, awe you with resplendence and flatten you with end-times bleakness.

This time around, frontman and lyricist Win Butler fights to stave off the termination of his own embattled existence while seeking out a sliver of hope in situations seemingly bereft of redemption: "There's a great black wave in the middle of the sea for me," he observes on "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations." Here he paints an almost cinematic portrait of a man walking on a lonely beach while the world loudly and apocalyptically unravels.

This is precisely why Funeral came through more clearly without the polyphonic density and sonic debris of its descendant: It bore witness to life in healthy resurgence. Neon Bible, on the other hand, is entangled in visions of collapse.

Fittingly, "Ocean of Noise" opens with the din of murky storms and closes with a combination of wiry strings and a swooning horn climax that trembles with scattered propulsion. The blown-up haze of the superb latter half of "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" best approximates the energetically weathered motif at work. The song enters with broodingly percussive pounding and then persists through electric crackles that burn up the edges of the arrangements.

But the mesmerizing "No Cars Go" signifies the album's arms-buildup moment. All of its weapons — rapid-fire horns, a racing bass, hotly flickering synths and martial drum work — collide into a grandly overstuffed sea-swell. Its outro unfolds like a triumphant promenade into the afterlife.

This isn't needless overkill, however. The urgency of Butler's world-in-shambles imagery demands this sort of sonically overactive but beautiful mania.

The Arcade Fire doesn't stubbornly insist on always channeling its visions through flailing, stratospheric grandiosity, although even its earthier forays do inevitably reach spirited apexes. But such numbers as the monumental "Intervention" and the rushing "Anti-Christ Television Blues," open and proceed in more of a Springsteenian mode, with rustling acoustics at the center, punctuated by musical garnishes both swooping and restrained in nature.

On an album that plays like a thrilling string of climaxes, "Intervention" arrives at the most robust crest of any track, rivaling Funeral standouts "Neighborhood #2," "Wake Up" and "Rebellion (Lies)" for the Arcade Fire's finest creation to date. It rises from huge, confessional organs and takes flight as Butler does his best Boss impression: "Who's gonna throw the very first stone/ Who's gonna reset the bone?"

From there, the encompassing wall of symphonics and siren vocals carries the song into the homestretch.

The acoustic-driven gallop of "Anti-Christ Television Blues" stays comparatively grounded but can't resist letting its steady, breathless chug broaden slightly with the light atmospherics. Neon Bible seems stricken with a dogged need to expand upward and outward. Invariably, the crowing heights it achieves are spellbinding.

At the conclusion of "Anti-Christ Television Blues," Butler raises his gaze heavenward and lets out this dramatic plea: "I'm through being cute now/ I'm through being nice/ Oh, tell me Lord/ Am I the Anti-Christ?" There the music abruptly cuts off, ending the tune in a cold silence.

This instance of powerful brooding outmatches the spiritual nakedness of Butler's previous material and infuses the new work with a completely different aura — that of a struggle with no solace on the horizon: "Not much chance for survival/ If the Neon Bible is true," he murmurs on the hypnotic title track. Whereas Funeral at times hits the listener with the colorful hysteria of an evangelical tent-revival mosh pit, Neon Bible comes off like a stern Catholic homily — commanding and moving but with a stirringly dour, Augustinian sense of salvation.

Even when accompanied by the graceful chirp of wife Regine Chassagne's vocals, Butler's delivery is that of a man resigned to doom. With earnest stoicism, he stares down the treacheries that plainly beset his path. He appears to internalize the fear that plagues his reality and, occasionally, even embraces it. On the thumping, Joy Division-inflected "The Well and the Lighthouse," he sings, "If I seem lost/ Well I weighed the cost and chose my crime/ Now it's mine, all mine."

Without the binding context of death that informed Funeral's subtext, Butler stays admirably contained in his lyrical reach, opting not to indict all of the world's ills: He, the irrevocably imperiled, is the one on trial.

For what? The answer is only vaguely spelled out, but the personal angle nevertheless lends added visceral heft to the stripped core of Neon Bible.

On the finale "My Body is a Cage," Butler temporarily reigns in the sprawling tumult of the previous 10 songs and croons like a soulful Bono: "My body is a cage/ That keeps me from dancing with the one I love." It's his best vocal piece yet.

However, like most things on this majestically loaded masterpiece, Butler's pristine pierce gives way to a grand surge. Neon Bible is awash in these kinetic impulses that simply can't be harnessed. Herein lies the splendor of Arcade Fire's artistry and accounts for the beauty of their two knockout albums — that ability to vividly translate the internal into the external, to make visible and tangible the mystery of human tragedy, and to synchronize the overwhelmed anticipation of death with the enlivening gusto of pop music.

Grade: 5 out of 5