Monday, September 24, 2012

Album Review: Alt-J - An Awesome Wave

Album Rating: B+
Music and IQ have a somewhat testing relationship. It's a conundrum really. Writers need a certain level of intelligence if their songs are to hold any form of resonance, and yet the sharpest tools are all too often grounded by a will to exercise their own intellect at the expense of listenablity. With this in mind, it's perhaps unsurprising that the public remains a little suspicious of outward brain boxes, so the fact Alt-J have been embraced with open arms speaks volumes of what they've already achieved.

For better or worse, this quartet (from Cambridge, obviously!) epitomise pretty much everything we associate with boffin indie. Their name derives from the keyboard instruction used to usher a triangle on a Mac, they operate under the highly dubious 'folktronica' tag, and their songs are filled with obtuse literary references. All very academic. What's more, their image is that of a bunch of awkward bespectacled geeks, the likes of which you envisage locked away in a laboratory or returning home splattered with paint from an art course.

Inevitably, this whole persona spills over into their music, yet even in its most elaborate moments An Awesome Wave proves a strangely listenable affair. It's a huge sonic mass of ideas, bubbling with ideas and bustling with originality to the point where one can be made to feel claustrophobic through sheer sensory overload. Packed though it is, this creative streak lends their songs a sustained source of inspiration, rendering even the least eventful passages nothing if not interesting.

The vast majority of this record, however, is far more than interesting. Surpassing your usual perceptions of math wankery, the four-piece also excel in the not so well travelled realms of sapient songwriting. This is apparent as early as "Tessellate," a thinking man's hit which manages to channel trippy rhythms, pots 'n' pans percussion and Joe Newman's bizarre, nasally voice into an eclectic, dub-bathed triumph. Its hooks are the type that worm their way intrinsically into listener's heads, leaving a lasting impression as opposed to striving for an easier short-term impact. Most advanced.

Things only get better from then on in. "Breezeblocks," for instance twists those elements into a progressive overlapping crescendo, while "Something Good" lends them to a breezy chill-folk number that's not dissimilar from Fleet Foxes. "Fitzpleasure" on the other hand is a relatively straightforward bloodrush of thudding bass and measured tension, which for all its recorded excellence makes an even more thrilling prospect in the live environment.

Such an adept balance of craft and creativity has proved beyond many a musical mastermind, so the fact that Alt-J are flourishing proves they are already ahead of the pack. They're a band many will say are rife with promise, but the reality is that much of that has already been realised. Indeed if they maintain this upward trajectory it's almost frightening to think what a force they could become. It may, of course turn out to be a false dawn, but you'll be hearing about An Awesome Wave a whole lot more until a successor does appear.


An Awesome Wave is out now.

Official website


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

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