Apparently Alt-J, which is also known as ∆, has been a band since 2007. But like the majority of the western world this author stumbled upon them only after the released of their first LP ‘An Awesome Wave’, a few weeks ago, in the autumn of 2012.
We’ve all had the experience of hearing an album for the first time and having it immediately intrigue and sasatisfy your musical-mind; it’s new, it’s hot, it has a brute strength and you know to enjoy it now because there is nothing like that kind of novelty. And then there are those albums that you hear for the first time and you know you didn’t just experience what the musician(s) had in mind. You know you will have to repeat the listening experience, you will have to soak it in over a period of time to understand – not to mention fully enjoy – the piece of work. Those albums have finesse, and more often than not those are the ones that really stick with you throughout the years.
And then, once in a blue moon, there is an album that is both. Alt-J, with ‘An Awesome Wave’, has given us just that. An album that’s beauty is self-evident upon the first listen, but then only grows with each passing listen without any wear. These are the albums we must all collectively take notice of, for each one is a gift for us music lovers, gifts that need not stop giving.
When once asked to quickly describe the band, without any time for thought, “Neil Young in a barbershop quartet meets Radiohead” is what came to mind. Their lead singer has an uniquely intoxicating voice, one that normally has this somewhat nasally twinge within it that immediately attracts the ear due to it’s clear distinctiveness. But then when he either sings quieter, or moves into his falsetto – which both occur often – it becomes waxy smooth and is perfectly on pitch. His 3 partners also all help on vocals, which at times creates a neo-barbershop type sound (in that they will sing in different pitches, or they will sing the same words spaced out differently in time), and at other times they project an almost Gregorian chant like feel (where their shared simultaneous signing strongly reinforces itself) – yet either way the shared signing is seizing and positively adds to each song. Even when you can’t discern the lyrics the vocals inject a powerful emotive quality, all throughout the album.
The actual music on the other hand is varied, but would be associated with quasi-psychedelic indie rock. They like to first construct a robust and intricate rhythm section – that often leads the ebbs and flows of their songs – upon which they layer winsome and engaging melodies and vocals. They often are employing quick-but-calm drum beats and tempos. They often use consistent quarter notes, and slightly abnormal drum patterns, so that there is a present percussive energy without needing to resort to playing faster. Much of the simple beauty lies in their use of the bass (and at time bass like keys), it is not such a tandem instrument to the drums, it often leads and informs the listener more than any other instrument, such as in Fitzpleasure.
Best yet though, this band has a rare ability to create songs that have involved progressions. The movement of their songs isn’t predictable, but nor does it catch you off guard, and they cherish and think out each crescendo. They borrow a little bit from contemporary electronic music in this sense. They aim to take the listener somewhere on each track, and that track isn’t linear or simple. This can also be said for the album as a whole. ‘An Awesome Wave’ is clearly meant to be listened to from track 1 through 14. It is beautifully designed to take hold of the listener, you are on an Alt-J sojourn when you play this record and it’s simply sublime (and this is without being a “concept album” mind you).
There is a dedicated Intro, which successfully intrigues and captures the listeners attention, as well as an ending song, Hand Made, that clearly projects a lullaby-like feeling of closure in a calming yet captivating manner. The well thought out construction is also shown by the fact that 3 songs dispersed within the album are interludes (they are literally titled Interlude 1,2, and 3). One is just their voices, another involves a charming piano and acoustic guitar duet, the last is a vocal and piano track that has a sound-scape feel to it (no words are actually said). These boys clearly seem to have been classically trained. These prepossessing interludes are all short and serve as moments for pause and reflection as they transition you from one song to the other. Not only does it set you up well for each coming track, but it makes each song seem to carry more weight. This is a vastly superior tactic than having “filler tracks”, some of which appear on our favorite records. (Let’s hope some other bands take notice of this tactic.)
It’s difficult to comment on specific tracks on this album because they sincerely are all superb, in addition to the fact that the music is best understood as an album. Tessellate, however, is one song that many would immediately love. It has a shadowy swagger to it, with an pitter-patter drum beat and arresting vocals. There is simultaneously gloom and calmness. Breezeblocks shows off some of the band’s best integration of their group-singing intertwined with their brand of progressive indie rock. The drum beat has an addictive pattern, with the bass frolicking and encouraging the listener to move. But the breakdown at the end, with the rhythm section taking over underneath a crescendo of chorused vocals, is utterly fantastic and one of the best moments on the album.
Fitzpleasure is the decided party song on the album. It has gritty bass, a intoxicating dance-friendly beat, and fun lyrics. However, it still is quite dynamic, always morphing, never keeping the energy at any certain level for too long. But that means when they let it loose, it’s meaningful. Something Good might remind people of Radiohead with they way they use the snare and kick, with softly plucked guitar moving into ascending keys – only to burst into a moment of pure optimism – and then drop back into the quick introspective beat again.
Alt-J, with the release of ‘An Awesome Wave’ won themselves the 2012 British Barclaycard Mercury Prize, a highly valued and significant annual award in the UK for the best new band/musician. So it isn’t being novel or different to also shower praise upon this album and band. But no band could deserve it more, not at this moment. ‘An Awesome Wave’ is probably the most adroitly created album of 2012, and Alt-J are clearly the best new act of 2012 (with Purity Ring being right up there with them though!). But what is even better, is that ‘An Awesome Wave’ is one of the best albums, comprehensively, released in years. And with it’s timeless and universally accessible composition, it is not only an album we will likely be talking about for years, but one that makes you yearn to hear what they will do next.
Well done boys, well done indeed.
Written by Sean Brna
OurVinyl | Editor