Alt-J – An Awesome Wave (2012)

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Alt-J may be one of the best recent examples of a band meeting in university and fucking around with sounds and kicking at the Weird until it bleeds something fantastic.

Their An Awesome Wave is indeed making waves for all the right reasons. The four-piece met at Leeds University in 2007 and emerged with a number of inspirations, name changes and stimulating ways to write music. That course, set as it was in a lattice of family dynamics and probable hallucinogenics, comes to rest on this album.

Gwil Sainsbury (guitars, bass guitars), Joe Newman (guitars, vocals), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards), and Thom Green (drums) share an inventive, energetic spirit that faces down influences from Radiohead, Nick Drake, The xx, and beyond to compile their own “folktronica” sound.

Arrangements rise from pileups of sounds and are played through with meagre guitars, heartfelt keys and Green’s no-cymbals-no-problem drumming. Alt-J’s earnestness, along with their dedication to producing an album of scope and simplicity, challenges the demons of pretentiousness and cold-heartedness that can haunt music of this sort.

To that end, Newman stands as the soul of Alt-J. His fragile falsetto is distinctively coarse and his discordant audacity keeps him unafraid of dragging out certain notes and letting other ones get off easy. He rises through great heights (“Dissolve”) and blends ably with the other musicians to create his own form of puckish brilliance.

The band’s lyrical interests lie just about everywhere, from the filmic (“Matilda,” “Tessellate”) to other more expansive, inviting arenas like bullfighting and love.

The use of interludes is noteworthy, with Alt-J setting characters and producing a classic “whole album” feel by intertwining slight moments of refined harmonization with the bigger picture. This works particularly well at the start of An Awesome Wave, with a bright ambient-tinged introduction giving way to the spirited psychedelic vocal fusions of “Interlude 1.”

“Interlude 3” builds skilfully with moving falsetto and understated chording before opening the gates to “Bloodflood,” an incredible piece of music with gentle form, vivid keys and smart spacing to mark the road. When Newman sings “breath in, exhale” and follows his instructions, something awesome happens.

Alt-J is racking up accolades from the likes of NME and the BBC – and rightly so. As far as the instruments of hype can sometimes take a band, these lads are the real deal. An Awesome Wave is a special album in a sea of not-so-special albums, a venturesome but modest piece of art that echoes long after the final notes have worn away.

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Jordan Richardson

Jordan Richardson is a Canadian freelance writer and ne'er-do-well. He also contributes to his own Canadian Cinephile and Canadian Audiophile websites. Contact Something Else! Reviews at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
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