Alt J ‘An Awesome Wave’ – Review

7 Oct

From Wikipedia

‘Alt J is the command used on a Mac keyboard to achieve the Greek letter “Delta”. Guitarist and bassist Gwil Sainsbury noted, “in mathematical equations it’s used to show change” and the band’s relatively new name came at a turning point in their lives. “Alt-J” were formerly known as ‘Daljit Dhaliwal’

Is there really any need for me to go on reviewing this album or does that paragraph tell you all you need to know? That Alt-J are a bunch of pretentious, Mac obsessed hipsters. Not only that, they’re the worst kind of pretentious hipsters – the ones who are nowhere near as clever or cool as they think they are. A lot of influential people seem to think they’re the ‘new Radiohead’ when actually they’re the new Everything Everything – purveyors of jittery, ADHD inflected, soulless gloop.

To be fair Alt-J are never as terrible as I want them to be and, despite their irritating sensibilities, ‘An Awesome Wave’ is an almost decent debut album. It’s all over the place (in fact it’s possibly the most badly structured, unfocused record I’ve heard all year) but it’s often pleasant and occasionally intriguing. The singer has an odd voice that sounds quite ugly one minute and almost heavenly the next (see ‘Ripe and Ruin’ for an example of how this works in one song). The harmonies are ambitious and on some of the a cappella moments they shine quite brightly. In fact if ‘An Awesome Wave’ was all about the singing then this would be a fine record – but it isn’t all about the singing.

The instrumentation across the album is fairly bland and unadventurous – the odd time signatures and flashes of synth may try and convince you otherwise but pay them no attention. Everything you’re hearing here has been done before, and better. ‘Taro’ sounds like early Yaysayer without the urgency, the various interludes are eerily similar to ‘Flaws’ era Bombay Bicycle Club, and closer ‘Hand-made’ sounds like an unanthemic Mumford and Sons knock off.

Alt-J do an excellent job of sounding more ambitious and experimental than they actually are. Strip these songs back and they are often built around solid melodies and ornate acoustic guitar arrangements, but nothing that would grab your attention and hold it. Nothing that would inspire Radiohead comparisons. The constant tension caused by the overthinking rhymn section really doesn’t compliment these fairly linear songs, and the tracklisting doesn’t help either, sitting fast songs alongside slow songs, loud songs alongside quiet songs, and short songs alongside long songs. Essentially this is an easy listening album that is actually quite difficult to listen to.

You get the sense that the lyrics came very late in the equation, long after the music and melodies had been settled on, as often words seem to have been paired together purely because they rhyme or share a vowel sound. Often they make no sense, no matter how thorough you interrogate them. ‘Capa, jumps jeep, two feet creep up the road’, ‘very yellow white skin’, ‘a violent wrench grips mass’. Some themes of the album (conflict, tension, war, depression) aren’t a good match with the almost childish, impressionistic use of language, but when Alt-J’s aims are less intellectual they succeed far better. I like the line ‘something good tonight will make me forget about you for now’ and ‘broken sweethearts who sleep apart/ both still pine for the other side’s spine.’ In other words Alt-J do heartbreak pretty well. Towards the end of Breezblocks they start chanting ‘please don’t go, I love you so, I love you so.’ and it’s best moment on the album.

At one point on ‘Tessellate’ the singer decides to tell us that ‘triangles are my favourite shape’, as if that’s relevant, as if that’s interesting, as if we’d care. It’s a bizarre statement to make, coming as it does after a rather awkward shark metaphor that’s dragged out for a whole verse. But as odd as this line is, it’s something I kept coming back to – in fact this may be the crux of the record. Triangles obviously mean something important to Alt-J, I can only assume that’s why they say it and that’s why they named their band after the shape. The problem is you’re left with no idea as to what triangles are symbolic of, and you don’t really care because Alt-J don’t make you want to care. This is symptematic of an album made by a talented band who already sound complacent. A band who are probably too clever for their own good.

4/10

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3 Responses to “Alt J ‘An Awesome Wave’ – Review”

  1. Joe May 23, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    4/10?????? You’re bloody generous. I wouldn’t have given it a 1/10. It’s utter dross. Pretentious, smug, arrogant music from individuals who are far less talented than they think they are. Musically, they are pretty appalling.

    I’ll pass. It’s garbage.

  2. Tim Six August 18, 2015 at 1:35 am #

    Pretentious is definitely how I would describe the group and their music. I heard an amateur solo vocalist do a cover of one of their songs and searched for Alt J out of curiosity. Disappointed would be an understatement. At best, they’re a failed version of The Temper Trap.

  3. emdotem November 7, 2015 at 8:56 am #

    Maybe you’re not the analytical type, but I feel they have extremely rich lyrics. I find Alt-J to be one of the most genuine modern bands primarily due to their lyrical content. Their lyrics contain clever allusions, historical context, vivid diction and many other literary devices. They may have a rather experimental sound, however their lyrics are pure poetry.

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