Every once in a while you will hear a song that contains the kernel of something that sets your mind (a) racing; as though you were looking through a window when all of a sudden the image breaks apart into translucent tiles . . . of epiphany? of perspective? of awesome? It is the feeling I had a number of years back listening to this odd record that incorporated strange video game sounds and electronic music samples into a strange mix of angelic falsettos and robotic monotone vocals about alienation and routine. It was revelatory, odd and exciting all at once. I’m getting that feeling again…
About a week back I happened across Alt-J’s “Fitzpleasure” while going through my day-to-day, nothing about the name or band caught by attention at first. As I listened passively to the track, I heard male voices intoning a series of scales in an odd, almost a-tonal round when all of a sudden the bottom drops out of the song with this near fist-punch of bass in your face. Then, the music transforms into a pleasant symphonic melody only to transform back and forth with no discernible pattern, a mystery or a riddle of a song. Fits of discomfort and confusion combined with pleasurable waves of sound. Suffice to say, I was hooked. This was the most interesting, creative, and bizarre song I’d heard in a really long time – and let’s face it I listen to some weird stuff — see Julia Holter, God Speed! You Black Emperor, Phillip Glass, John Cage, etc. Awash in excitement and confusion, I needed to hear and know who and/or what this band was all about.
What follows is what I’ve learned by way of scant articles on the internet and their stellar debut album An Awesome Wave, which I can’t stop listening to:
- The band is a four piece who meet at University (Leeds to be exact).
- They now live, reside and record in Cambridge, England.
- Alt-J is the keyboard command for “Delta”.
- Musically they are non-denominational.
- It is highly likely they have a friend, significant other or loved one named Matilda. For whom they wrote a song.
- Triangles are the Narrator’s favorite shape.
- Choral harmonies permeate their songs.
- They are on tour. Go see them!
An Awesome Wave is aptly titled, the album unfolds and inundates the listener in a tapestry of complex and unrelenting sounds. From the outset, it is evident that Alt-J has put together an adventurous whole of an album. The opening track “Intro” works as a perfect warm-up and taste of what is to come: the unexpected. Although Alt-J’s sound is definitely rooted in a decidedly Brit-Pop-Electronica-Rock sound (which has far more bass and soul than its American Electro-Clash, Indie-Rock cousin), the band is not afraid to incorporate Medieval Folk harmonies reminiscent of Jethro Tull’s Song From the Wood or the American Folk of the 60s, Caribbean percussive rhythms, and New Age-y World Music hybrids (a mix of Celtic, Indian and Middle Eastern traditions).
In short, I haven’t heard a record this creative, adventurous, daring as this in some time. It almost continuously counters my expectations of what is to come. It is a pleasure ride of curiosity and euphoria when it all comes together as it does on tracks like “Dissolve Me” and “Taro” (or the above-mentioned “Fitzpleasure”). Now, this isn’t to suggest that the other tracks aren’t pleasing and well-crafted. Instead, contrary to my somewhat hyperbolic opening, there are songs that follow more conventional patterns and structure; moving between the familiar and the completely “out-there” helps increase the genius and immensity of the album. (It’s sort of the way that people will often remark with respect to Abstract or Experimental Art things like “Oh my kid could do that” or “That doesn’t take any skill.” If you actually see some of the early work of the artists in question (such as the Rauschenbergs, Rothkos, Pollocks, or Kandinskys of the world), you’ll see how technically competent and brilliant they were. Word of Warning: I’m not suggesting this album/band is at the level of these artists. It’s just an analogy.)
Rather than inundate with too much verbiage about the band or the tracks, I will leave you now to listen to what has already become one of my favorite records, discoveries, and musical adventures of the year. If it doesn’t catch you on the first listen, give it some time to simmer in your sub-conscious because there is some great stuff going on here.
Listen to Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave in its entirety via the SoundClould Player below.
Also, if you want to get just a taste before diving “all in” these are a (few of) My Favorite (and illustrative) Tracks:
- “Dissolve Me”
For Fans Of: Radiohead, Animal Collective, Panda Bear, Sigur Ros, Mogwai,Dead Can Dance, Afro-Celt Soundsystem.