Monday, 17 September 2012

Alt-J - An Awesome Wave

 
'Triangles are my favourite shape/Three points where two lines meet' vocalist Joe Newman leads through the track 'Tessellate'. For a band identified officially by the very shape, it seems almost fitting that the band make a mention of it on their debut, 'An Awesome Wave'. Lavishly darting in streams of indie, folk and pop, Alt-J - if you don't have the patience to get the ∆ symbol up - are the bridge that join the three points in variance of this sound. But the other main component to any band's output of course, are the vocals. And it's the harmonics that surface in the form of Alt-J's joyous and uplifting a cappellas surfacing left, right and centre on this debut, that adds ghostly translucency to a record that remains transparently honest and to-the-point.

Opener, the safely-titled 'Intro', does exactly what the above mentions in regards to its execution and its unveiling of what's to follow. The simple melodic rung of piano keys and guitar strings hop and skip in time amidst the beat of percussion. And later - the guitars becoming more fuzzier and grimacing in progression - Newman's vocals are delicate yet bold in their presentation. So we come to 'Tesselate' and the drop of repeating piano keys gives a distracting charade in our ears, the track coming off like a sample, and instead blossoming into a thumping beat of rock-meets-technology in its production. But the way the track uses this hip-hop-esque methodology - yet making it sound less like background filler and more in line with foreground decoration - comes off in charming teases of glassy drum-hits and glitchy guitar strums. It's the vocals that leave the biggest lasting mark as is the case in 'Breezeblocks', Newman's crooning forest of a voice - bushy lows and sun-piercing highs - leading its way from enclosing entryway to the brighter chambers of the band's folkish pop-rock triad.

While the formula doesn't necessarily swing as much as their direction in these very vocals, the key thing that keeps the music both compelling and an enjoy to traverse through is how fresh the instrumentation comes off in. It's almost as if the band themselves are enjoying it - each crisp and delicate string sounding as much in focus as the next. 'Something Good' though does throw a suggestion as to a more math-rock styling - instrumental layouts that, through Newman's continuing shine of vocals, may or may not be built upon a more meaningful concept or subject matter. In this case, the subject is rather personal and more close to the heart. 'Something good, oh something good tonight will make me forget about you for now'. And despite all this honesty and directness in the music and vocals alike, the sheen and glow of the quartet's sound is all too surreal in how it maintains that positive vibe.

But even when the band are at their most simple and rhythmic here, there's still this ambitious drive for accomplishment and deliverance by the band. 'Matilda' though comes across as one of the lesser daring tracks musically, still maintains a thriving means of telling a story and using the music to bring that concept out of the pattern of thought and into this familiar fog of self-analysis. The lyrics here, are a lot simpler yes, but the band's use of somber guitar playing and feathered percussion hits help pull the ideas from off the ground. And in 'Fitzpleasure', the harmonization of high and low in vocals provide a sort of welcome ambiguity for the buzz of electrics, as much as the strum of guitar strings, to help reclaim that clarity from previous. The way the album as a whole switches transparency for cloudiness, and back again, can be quite daring - and the only recognizing aspect of the band's means to experiment - but considering how honest and true the band keep to the roots of their playing style, the gamble seems more and more to have paid off.

Alt-J's skills then come off remarkably well in the album's penultimate offering, and arguably the band's most emotively convincing detail of vocals and instrumentation, 'Bloodflood'. From out of the haunting spidery crawl of keys and echoey choir voices, Newman's vocal offer to 'breathe in/exhale' - only adding to the see-sawing of joy and melancholy swirling in this song. 'Tide out, tide in/A flood of blood to the heart and the fear slipstreams.' Newman adds further, the song now humbly calling out in gentle streams of guitars and drum hits. And because of it, the song manages to captivate in the only way that proves a song's true merit as being sentimental and touching to an individual's perception. The emotion, and further to that the simplicity with which the band use to capture such emotion, is immensely rewarding.

Rewarding is indeed a decent and worthy choice of word to describe this album. 'An Awesome Wave' on the surface paves itself as a down-to-Earth direct response, as much as it might be an addition, to the togetherness of most four-piece rock outfits. But given the time of day and the willingness to look beyond just the surface, what you'll find is an album with remarkable homage to the simpler sounds in life and an understanding into how to appease those who may not know of such things. Alt-J may not pull punches on the volume and thickness of their production, but the magic and effectiveness of their execution and the way they gel together appear to come in fewer and fewer portions as of late. To find a band that work as well together as people as much as they do musicians is more than just a treat, it's an eye-opener into the World of simple-and-honest admiration for music. Alt-J are certainly a band that tick such a box, and with the news that they have been nominated for this year's much-anticipated Mercury prize, it looks as if I'm not alone in these opinions.
~Jordan

8.5

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