On first impressions, alt-J are a worryingly earnest prospect. Going by a symbol instead of a band name (∆ – the result of pressing alt and, yes, J on a Mac) and issuing enigmatic press photos is warning enough, while the fact that they came together at university another indication that we shouldn’t expect An Awesome Wave to be a snappy collection of speedy punk pop songs. In this case however, first impressions aren’t deceiving. This is a complex, challenging and dense record. It’s also bloody marvellous.
There’s an element of the kitchen sink approach, usually another indication of a high sense of musical intelligence, but again in the hands of the Leeds quartet there is nothing to fear. Effortless vocal harmonies mix with processed beats of the hip-hop and electronic kind, flowing together rather crashing into each other. Thus the record moves effortlessly from a brooding melancholy to choral acapella to bass heavy pop all in the first three tracks. Then the single ‘Breezeblocks’ turns up and the album explodes into life, perhaps the perfect example of what some wags are terming ‘folk step’. A meaningless, made up name it maybe but it does give a hint of the strange directions that alt-J take their music.
Better still, where others burn brightly then let us down, An Awesome Wave is in it for the duration. Just when you think you’ve got them pegged, another surprise slides into view. Those twists and turns keep coming throughout, especially in the shape of Joe Newman’s stunning vocal performances. Switching from falsetto to a low croon at the drop of a hat, he keeps a human hand on the tiller while all sorts of mechanics come into play around him. That maybe is what is quite so special about alt-J, that at their heart are four individuals in control of their own destiny. Awesome indeed.