Thursday, 9 August 2012

alt-J (∆) - An Awesome Wave added to 2012 Recommended Albums

That name. Those vocals. The hype of the UK press. The descriptions on every track of their Soundcloud album stream. ∆. I was convinced I was going to hate this album. I made fun of it to my friends. Then I listened to it. I take it all back. It's brilliant.

It takes some getting used to. alt-J's most distinctive musical feature as mentioned already is their vocals. Joe Newman's falsetto sounds forced, contrived and immediately like a gimmick. In a sense they represent every negative criticism one could construct towards the band and An Awesome Wave, their talked-about debut album. It's tough to describe the vocals' timbre with only words; though ultimately they are tuneful, carry emotion and the majority of the lyrics can be deciphered (to these ears), and are just pleseant enough to be gotten away with. If there's anything to get past, it's the vocals (and I'm still not sure if I actually like them or not), but if you can what remains is an album of uniquely crafted, forward-thinking British indie-rock.

The loudest and most dynamic track An Awesome Wave has to offer is clearly "Fitzpleasure", with its huge, dirty bass riff leading charge a polyrhythmic battailion of "la la la"'s. If you only need one track to secretly indulge in let it be this one; though admit it, how could you not fall for one of the quirkiest, most energetic singles of the year? Second place goes to "Breezeblocks", whose narrative (captured in its reverse-motion music video) documents the violent struggle of a tearing relationship. Newman's knack for a comelling vocal melody ("Please don't go, please don't go / I love you so, I love you so") may appear to be the standout feature, but as with the majority of An Awesome Wave the credit has to go to the drum patterns of Thom Green, which burst with a trip-hop flavour from which the rest of alt-J's style is indebted to. It's no coincedence that one of the labels the band suggested to define their sound was "trip-folk".

Listening to deeper album cuts yields more gems. "Dissolve Me" may whiff of a bedwetter's paradise (the song literally describes a "bedtime routine"), but is genuinely affecting, with a skipping keyboard melody and another rousing mantra: "she makkes the sound the sea makes, knee-deep in it all". The Eastern instrumentation of "Taro" is another move that many bands miscalculate, but alt-J use it sparsely, putting rhythm again at the forefront. Even the interludes are interesting enough to feel important, although the third, "Piano" feels like one too many. If An Awesome Wave comes close to falling off anywhere, it's the relative blandness of "Matilda" and "Ms"; the latter feeling especially awkward and empty ("The dark seeks dark"). However even these tracks stay in character. You may have heard "Matilda" on the radio during the last few months, and it's easy to see it as an accessible step towards the rest of the album's unusual delights.

Aside from a few badly-chosen sample choices and the obvious vocals there's very little to disagree with An Awesome Wave. It's the debut album for the summer you'd want, with a handful of wonderful standout tracks to go into any playlist. alt-J are another band who present new, fully-developed ideas from the drop of their debut, and are willing to challenge not only mainstream but also underground tastes. It's a risk that not only allows them to stand out from the crowd but pays off from a musical standpoint too. The highs of the album far outweigh the lows, and for that it's an experience that doesn't deserve to be missed, or misjudged.

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