Album Review: Alt-J – An Awesome Wave
They’ve been hailed in some quarters as the heirs to Radiohead, and although the comparison is only sporadically accurate it’s easy to understand why. Alt-J are about as far away from your typical rock band as it’s possible to get.
The unconventional quartet are named after the Mac keyboard command for the ‘delta’ sign, their drummer uses a saucepan instead of a cymbal, and they’re quite happy to introduce sudden, unexpected bhangra rhythms or nonsensical vocal chanting into a track.
However, what makes this off-the-wall approach so much more rewarding than the self-indulgent hogwash you might expect, is the sheer beauty, heart and exuberance of Alt-J’s remarkable music. This is immensely powerful stuff – almost heartbreakingly wonderful at times – and so very impressive that An Awesome Wave has to go down as one of the most magnificent debuts in recent memory.
Broadly art-rock, but taking in strong elements of folk, post-rock, trip-hop, ‘world’ music and electronica along the way, their captivating blend of insatiable grooves and profound poignancy achieves that near-impossible trick of being jaw-droppingly different from the norm, yet instantly enjoyable and accessible.
Certain comparisons can be clutched at here and there. Frontman Joe Newman’s unconventional, slurred vocals are akin to those of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth, while there are sensual rhythms reminiscent of Wild Beasts, heavenly post-rock guitars similar to those of Mogwai or Explosions In The Sky, and stirring vocal harmonies that smack of the Fleet Foxes. There are even shades of Graceland-era Paul Simon on the wonderful Dissolve Me.
For the most part, however, Alt-J are most certainly ploughing their own sonic furrow. And the results are nothing short of astonishing.
At their most laid-back, the band conjure up music that is both captivating and elegant. Tessellate manages to be sensual, calming, hip and touching all at the same time, while Something Good, with its warm guitars, foot-tapping percussion and rippling piano, feels like the perfect post-party fireside jam.
Matilda is perhaps the most conventional track on show: a heart-breakingly lovely ballad bathed in warm, lilting guitar, referencing the end of classic hit-man movie Leon no less. You’ll be humming the chorus for days after just one listen.
Best of all is MS, a slice of gorgeous, emotive serenity that hinges on spine-tinglingly beautiful vocal harmonies and the sweet, uplifting hook of gentle post-rock guitars.
However, the album musters an equally impressive array of upbeat tracks too, and it is these that perhaps offer the most satisfying moments.
Alt-J certainly know how to take their more energetic songs to a whole new level. Dissolve Me’s gorgeous mixture of chimey synth and purring electro drops away to the near-silence of Newman’s whispered pleas, before his anguished vocal mourning builds into an uplifting resurgence.
Then there’s the irresistible overlapping chanting refrain at the end of hyperactive gem Breezeblocks, and the sheer audacious lunacy of Fitzpleasure, where filthy dance-ready dubstep-growls give way to an extraordinarily epic post-rock centrepiece. Just when you think you have a song figured out, Alt-J are capable of surprising you with something completely out of leftfield.
Closing track Taro is the embodiment of this: those aforementioned bhangra rhythms delighting amid the percussive chimes and stirring strings. Then a dark, gritty guitar riff and childlike shouts arrive as if from nowhere, ushering in another surge in instrumentation. It’s magical.
Underlying all of this delightful weirdness throughout is a level of eccentric performance which, somewhat crucially, shrugs off any threat of pretentiousness with a sense of reckless, optimistic glee. Whether it’s Newman’s theatrical sniff on Tessellate, or the joyful bedlam of Fitzpleasure, Alt-J’s music is genuinely fun.
You’ll do well to find an album all year that is both as strikingly original and as immensely satisfying as this one. An awesome wave indeed.
FMV Rating: *****