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Album Review: Alt-J - An Awesome Wave

11th June 2012

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In an era where the sheer volume and variety of social media can turn a musical act into a star after 5 minutes (see one Conor Maynard), we can become somewhat overloaded with the latest gossip and hype. It can sometimes become quite a challenge to separate the wheat from the chaff. 

Alt-J, however, did us all a favour and bucked this trend. Indeed, in many ways, it seems like they were a band never looking to get their music publicised. The band refused to show their faces in early pictures. They chose an odd name which gives search engines’ a headache - if you haven’t already heard, Alt-J is the command used to get the ‘delta’ sign ∆. (Oh and before you try it, it only works on Macs). They don’t even have a wikipedia page. 

Alt-J then are somewhat of a abnormality in the modern landscape of music. That’s not to say the band have’t been hyped (reviewers have gushed for months) or unknown (one of their tracks, ‘Breezeblocks’, has graced Radio One); more that the band, made up of four Leeds University graduates, have taken a Travis-esque path and put their music, not the band, as the vanguard of their image.

A risk maybe - especially in an age of celebrity-driven mainstream culture - but one that has payed off for Alt-J, who have produced one of the most interesting and compelling debut albums in recent memory with An Awesome Wave. The record is simply captivating, creating a dense atmosphere of expansive rhythms and spectacular harmonies, creating sweet endearing nuggets of alternative-pop.

Nowhere is this more obvious than ‘Breezeblocks’, which is perhaps the album’s standout song and middle ground. The track begins with Joe Newman’s spoken-warble starts, encompasses oriental tinkling bells, and then rips into action mid-way through; cascading voices of “please don’t go, please don’t go, I love you sooo” behind a fast-tempo undercurrent of gorgeous guitar and colourful synth melody. It’s difficult to sum up in words, but the song is simply mesmerising every time you listen to it.

If Breezeblocks took the midpoint of Alt-J’s sound, than it is with ‘Fitzpleasure’ where the foursome reach their most raucous, with their “folk-step” sound clear to be seen with its razor sharp beats and glistening electronic beat. The upbeat ‘Dissolve Me’ - which has clear similarities to the Danish prog-rock Mew’s ‘Hawaii’ - also fits into this selection with its percussion of cheerful buoyancy making it a perfect soundtrack both for the happy ending of a indie film and for those rare days of sunshine at festival.

There are softer sombre moments too. ‘Tessellate’ appears as mishmash of Radiohead and 'Total Life Forever' Foals with its percussion-electronic sound with the vocals swooning and gliding through the song like birds flying through the sky. ‘Something Good’, similarly, takes a quieter tone, but retains all the impressiveness as the song is propelled forward by a building piano hook with the band’s harmonies drifting over the piece.

Even with the clearly weaker songs, the band manage to conjure up something. ‘Matilda’, the band’s Wild Beast moment, is far simpler in structure, arrangement and lyrical with the main refrain “this is from Matilda” making up most of the song. However, even this track is difficult to dismiss offhandedly, possessing a ambient mood that you can’t help loving. Alt-J manage to produce the goods every single time.

If there were complaints (and there are few to make), it would be that Newman’s vocals can, to some extent, become quite a refined taste. There are moments, such as in opening track ‘Intro’, where the intricate riff and atmospheric sound is punctured by the monotonous robotic voice. In Fitzpleasure too, the vocals take on a slightly Bollywood style which some may find grating. Furthermore, the three interludes also do nothing to enhance the overall quality of the album, appearing as nothing more than filler tracks of noise and hampering the overall flow of the LP.

Yet, these are minor trivialities. Much like the xx’s debut album; 'An Awesome Wave' is such an accomplished and exciting debut record that it is difficult to criticise. And as the album closes with ‘Taro’ (and hidden track ‘Hand-made’) - songs where the album’s folkiness comes to the surface in all its Fleet Foxes glory - it is clear why.

This an album which cannot be categorized into a genre or placed to similar contemporaries. Alt-J have taken every musical influence and made it their own, producing an inventive and quirky sound that makes 'An Awesome Wave' a enthralling listen. Each song is like a surprise present waiting to be opened. 

The band claims that naming of the group with that the delta sign (∆) was because it means change in mathematics. It might be pretentious, yes, but who are we to argue? Especially when they have done exactly that, producing an album that changes the landscape of alternative pop and which should create awesome waves all summer long....

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