For those readers not of the Apple generation, hold down the Alt key and press ‘J’ on your Mac keyboard and you get the ∆ symbol. ”In mathematical equations it’s used to show change” says guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury who formed the band back in 2007 with vocalist, Joe Newman. Even their debut single ‘Tessellate’ is an ode to their favourite polygon; Newman croons “triangles are my favourite shape” along to a metronome beat and delicate keys.
Do not be fooled by all the pretension however, nor judge too harshly ‘Tessellate”s lyrical akin to Des’ree’s ‘Life’. I can tell you now that this album is exactly what it says it is: an awesome wave. It ebbs and flows with multilayered synths, hip-hop grooves and folk-pop melodies. It may sounds insane, but it works.
‘Breezeblocks’ is a lush slice of electronic poly-rhythms in which keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newham blend their vocals in a Gregorian chant to ”Please don’t go/I love you so”. There are also literary references hidden throughout and ‘Breezeblocks’ apparently references ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by liking someone so much you want to hurt them. ‘Fitzpleasure’, the usual crowd pleaser when played live, references Hubert Selby Jr.’s ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’, the “Tralala”s sung at the track’s climactic bass drop are not there because they have run out of lyrics, but are in honour of the novel’s tragic prostitute named Tralala. Even ‘Matilda’ is named after Natalie Portman’s charater in Luc Besson’s ‘Léon’ and it is a track that packs a punch with the most sparing of musical ammo: simple keys accompanying subtle, graceful vocals.
As cerebral a record as the album’s brainy cover suggests, it is also a solid, summer record. Alt-J demonstrate the same ability that bands like Fleet Foxes and Wild Beasts have found fortune with – by making intricate, durable melodies with heartfelt harmonies that have a cross-generational draw. It’s a hard nut to crack but this album has enough stamina to stand up to replays. Tracks are well-paced, steering in and out of each other dexterously but each one as individual and well formed as the next and revealing more technical depth on each listen.
Alt-J deliver a range of musical styles with an idiosyncratic ease. There are bluesy twangs on ’Dissolve Me’, spilling out over sweeping synths and ‘Something Good’ showcases Thom Green’s playful, parade-like drums on the eccentric edge of a fantastic folk-pop track. ‘Taro’ moulds Gwil Sainsbury’s tricky fretwork around Bhangra-like rhythms and blends into plucking violin strings and undulating synths. As incredibly adept as each musician is, one never outweighs the other and instead they balance their sound from moment to moment into a soothing body of music.
Playing at Latitude and Bestival this year, the band’s strong live performance is also worth noting; I would advise getting to know this album now, so you can practice the singalong harmonies later.