Leeds starlets Alt-J, also known simply as Δ, have spent the last few months steadily acquiring the kind of critical acclaim that suggests a weighty future. Having spent years making music in private bedroom hide-outs, they emerged early last year, unveiling quirky beats that quickly got them signed and headed towards that clichéd meteoric rise. The debut album, entitled An Awesome Wave, emerged to an online love-in a couple of weeks ago, and has already proven to be an utterly beguiling soundtrack to our influx of tan-inducing weather. In short, Alt-J are already well on the road from ’writers of a couple of very compelling tracks’ to, in the eyes of many, ‘potential already fulfilled’.
All those years locked away might suggest a band with an element of stage fright, but that’s not evident tonight. There is, however, a heavy focus on the technical side of their music. Alt-J’s single-minded determination to replicate every aspect of their sophisticated layering live is impressive, but at times counterproductive. It’s difficult to pick flaws in a set as tight as tonight’s but if there is one, it’s the volume of their assorted percussion, which occasionally overwhelms the more subtle dimensions of their material. The rest of the set, heftily laden with intricate musical complexities, but coming out the far end wonderfully fully formed, is one phenomenal advert.
In a short performance, singles ‘Tessellate’ and ‘Breezeblocks’ both stroll in early. ‘Tessellate’s mumbled lyrics give an instrumental quality to all but the chorus, where vocalist Joe Newman’s soulful falsetto is allowed to peek through a well-placed break, a moment of intense clarity against the competing layers of the rest of the track. ‘Breezeblocks’ has become the calling card, but it’s the almost nonchalant power of the riffs at the heart of ‘Fitzpleasure’ that surpass it as a clear highlight. Three seconds of controlled intensity against a serene backdrop offers a glance at what Alt-J are all about: the stage presence is little more extravagant than a practice session (not such a bad thing in a venue where outside of the front three or four rows you won’t see anything anyhow), but the sound the band produce is like a dramatised form of the album. It’s quite stunningly tight, and throws in just enough extra power to dispel that ‘nothing extra live’ critique.
‘Matilda’ – a moment of intense emotion directed at an apparent lost love – proves another sing-a-long highlight, especially in offering a compelling glance at the variety in Alt-J’s stage set up. The experimental angles come out in a drum stick adapted to include a maraca, a drum kit used without cymbals, the use of castanets as backing percussion and every member offering up varied singing voices. At a stretch, you could even argue Alt-J lack obvious peers: they’re minimalist and infectious; leavened with sugary vocal moments and heavy on gorgeously subtle percussion. Radiohead are an obvious influence, and Django Django perhaps the most easily comparable live act. Newman’s sparingly used, octave-spanning vocal is often the best instrument on stage, refined and wonderfully varied.
It’s the unpredictable direction of songs, and a soulfully feminine aspect to the vocals, that makes things so intriguing, though. A part of us suspected Alt-J might struggle to convert their intricacies adequately into the live arena. We couldn’t have been more wrong. James Hendicott
As published in AU Magazine, May 2012.