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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Alt-J: An Awesome Wave


1) Intro; 2) (The Ripe & Ruin); 3) Tessellate; 4) Breezeblocks; 5) (Guitar); 6) Something Good; 7) Dissolve Me; 8) Matilda; 9) Ms; 10) Fitzpleasure; 11) (Piano); 12) Bloodflood; 13) Taro.

Let us begin with this: the front sleeve of the album features a radar image of the Ganges delta. Delta, see? That is the actual name of this band — the Δ symbol, indicating mathematical diffe­rence. Difference, see? This is because this band wants to make a difference. So why are they regularly called alt-J, then? Because apparently this is how you type out the delta on a Mac key­board. They use Macs, see? Or, rather, their immediate target group is Mac users. Because they want to make a difference. They all went to Leeds University, where they started up this band around 2009, and, allegedly, developed their unusual sound because the use of bass guitars and drums was prohibited in student halls. Ironic, isn't it — what with the name of «Leeds» being most closely associated for millions of people with Live At Leeds, one of the most deafeningly loud concert albums ever... but that's sort of beyond the point, since the Who are just about the least probable choice to be associated with Δ.

If I am going to make a point here, it has to be made rudely: I can find no better description for the overall sound of alt-J as a sound produced by a bunch of cerebral palsy survivors. (Not 100% removed from the truth, considering that at least the band's drummer, Thom Green, is reportedly 80 percent deaf because of a case of Alport syndrome). Their harmonies, their propensity for minor tonalities, the complexity of the material all push towards categorizing them as «rock» rather than «pop» — but it is a sort of decalcified rock, or, perhaps, a sort of «breezeblock rock», to borrow the name of the album's most successful single. The rhythm section of the band does keep very quiet most of the time, with the drummer sounding as if he were confined to a tiny junior set (sometimes I get the impression of a drum machine, when in reality it is Green tick-tocking on his quasi-cardboard percussion devices). The guitar is mostly playing standard folk or blues patterns, with an occasional surf-rock or post-punk chord thrown in. The keyboard player, Gus Unger-Hamilton, is arguably the most musically inventive member of the band, but even he ends up sounding like he's renting an apartment in a dollhouse most of the time.

And then there are the vocals, most of them courtesy of Joe Newman, who is also the main guitarist and (allegedly) the principal songwriter in the band. These belong to the «take it or break it» category: Alt-J fans naturally love his style, whereas for most other people they may be the single most repulsive element here — easily understandable, because in normal life you'd only hear this kind of tone from somebody with a chronic and incurable disease. Unnaturally high-pitched, shaky, wobbly, quiet, and making a point to apply as little pressure on the articulatory organs as possible — it's as if this guy was saving his voice for after marriage or something. Yet it is hard to deny that this vocal style is, on the whole, very well suited to the overall style of the music: Newman is simply doing with his voice the exact same things that all the other band mem­bers are doing with their instruments. This isn't even «effeminate rock», a term rendered near-useless in the era of Katy Perry empowerment — more like «anti-rock», if we normally associate rock music with power, energy, aggression, burning flames etc. It's the evil twin of Angus Young staring at him from the other side of the mirror; the miscarried bastard son of Thom Yorke's Radiohead propping his crutches against his father's fallen tombstone.

Before I get carried too far away with this metaphors, though, I must say that I am absolutely not sure that An Awesome Wave is really all that awesome. Released in 2012, it was sure different (though maybe not at all unexpected), and we are all quite hungry for difference (for Δ, that is!) in the 2010s, so it is easy to understand all the critical praise. Raised in the think-different envi­ronment of an elite art school, these guys seem very much driven by a strong desire to innovate, and from a purely formal viewpoint, they do a really good job with it. Although the overall sound of the album is atmospherically monotonous, it is, by nature, quite eclectic: you will hear echoes of everything from Eighties' synth-pop to Seventies' prog-rock (some of their most complex vocal parts make me think of Gentle Giant) to Nineties' R&B to 21st century hip-hop and various styles of electronic music. Basic structures and arrangements are anything but predictable: any song may shift its signature and tempo at any given minute, or be interrupted by a cute accappella section, or have Unger-Hamilton switch from synthesizer to vibraphone and back, blurring the lines between acoustic and electronic just as Newman sometimes blurs the lines between rapping and singing, because true art has nothing to do with lines, you know.

Whether it all works, though, is another matter. Obviously, for those with whom this sound clicks, Alt-J will be a solid pretender for the best band of the 2010s — not only do they innovate like crazy, but they are truly awesome! Those with whom it does not click, though, will find them­selves asking — so what exactly is the point? This music is not all that emotionally resonant, which is actually a good point, I think: one of the seductive sides of Alt-J, to me, is that they are not here for my tears, like certain bearded guys in log cabins. This is odd music, for sure, but I would not call it tragic or even melancholic: tired, perhaps, and meditative, but not trying to wrench out spasms of pity and empathy or emotionally manipulate you in any other way. But if it ain't about power, and if it ain't about pity, then... what is it about? Is it just about making a dif­ference without dropping us even a single hint?

The lyrics do not offer much help — even provided you can make out whatever Newman is mumbling (I cannot, but they have all the words conveniently printed out), the only easily under­standable idea is that most of the songs are love songs, hidden under a ton of symbolist metapho­rical makeup. At their densest, they go something like: "In your snatch Fitzpleasure, broom-shaped pleasure, deep greedy and googling every corner... steepled fingers, ring leaders, queue jumpers, rock fist paper scissors, lingered fluffers, they choir ʽin your hoof lies the heartlandʼ"... well, you get the drift. Again, I am not angered at this: the lyrics fit into the puzzle exactly the same way as everything else. This might be a good opportunity to name another possible influence on these guys — Captain Beefheart, of course — but perhaps this would be too much of an honor, because it is unlikely that the sound of Alt-J will have as much of a revolutionary im­pact on the future of pop music as the Captain did in his own time.

Discussing the songs on an individual level is a fruitless endeavor. Some are a little louder or a little faster; a few feature slightly more distinct hooks (the sharp "la la la la" counterpoints on ʽBreezeblocksʼ, for instance, or the stop-and-start structure of ʽFitzpleasureʼ whose distorted elec­tronic bassline actually adds a sense of alien menace); a few are distinctly more soulful, like ʽBloodfloodʼ with its pretty harmonies, gentle surf guitars and Newman's friendly suggestion to "breathe in, exhale" that might appeal to certain broken-hearted categories of people. But no matter how many times I listen to the whole thing, in the end it stays with me in that precise man­ner — as a single, holistic experience; an intriguing, complex, but possibly quite meaningless statement. That said, it's also not that weird: it never challenges the good old concept of harmony, the guitars and keyboards sound nice, and most of the weirdness really comes from their mash-up approach to pop music's legacy and the above-mentioned «lack of calcium» in the playing. It will definitely go down in history as an album that tried to say something new in the musically stale climate of 2012; whether that new saying was really worth anything, though, is a matter that still remains to be cleared up. Pending that, I give it an honest thumbs up for the effort.


  1. If Tessellate and Breezeblocks are representative I neither dislike nor love Newman's voice. I like the complexity, even though this subgenre is no my cup of tea. It reminds me a bit of the Japanese band Tricot, a band that combines math rock arrangements with poppy, almost bubblegum vocal melodies. Tricot rocks much harder though - Alt J would be the soft, mellow counterpart.

  2. I'm surprised you didn't mention the most obvious influence Radiohead. I like the feminine vibe allied to the geeky forms of the song. A tender, romantic but mainly artificial concoction.

    1. He does mention Radiohead, at the end of the third paragraph.