Alt-​J: “An Awesome Wave” or an Awesome Shipwreck?

Written by Hannah Jelliman

There seems to be so many ‘Indie’ bands around right now that the genre is almost becom­ing mono­ton­ous, how­ever emer­ging 4-​piece Alt-​J (∆) bring a fresh, innov­at­ive sound that is any­thing but bor­ing. The band’s name con­jures up images of com­puters and tech­no­logy, reflec­ted in the elec­tronic sound of many of their songs. However, accord­ing to their Facebook page, the sym­bol is “in math­em­at­ical equa­tions… used to show change”, per­haps reflect­ing the career changes taken in form­ing the band.

The boys met at Leeds University, three study­ing Fine Art and the other English Literature; their pas­sion for music developed as they jammed in their dorm rooms and even­tu­ally decided that music is their call­ing, and thank god they did! Now based in Cambridge, the band’s style has been defined by The Guardian as “Art-​rock”; how­ever I’d be more inclined to say Folk-​indie-​electro is a more fit­ting descrip­tion. Alt-J’s debut album “An Awesome Wave” is exactly what it says on the tin: an awe­some set of tracks vary­ing between mel­low acous­tics and up-​beat elec­tronic indie.

The open­ing track, aptly named “Intro”, is a calm intro­duc­tion of soft repet­it­ive piano, exper­i­mental elec­tron­ics and dis­tor­ted singing. Although not par­tic­u­larly mem­or­able, the song is easy-​listening, the type one might hear on a dance chill-​out CD. The second track “Interlude I” is the first of three autonom­ous inter­ludes on the album, each provid­ing some­what of a break from the dis­tinct sounds of the rest of the tracks. The first inter­lude ini­tially reminded me of Devon-​based singing group Fisherman’s Friends, with folky a cap­pella har­mon­ies. The short interim showed off the unique vocal sounds of the band’s sing­ers, intro­du­cing the listen­ers to the singing style that would fol­low. The album only really gets going at track three, “Tessellate”, which the band have recently announced as their next single. “Tessellate” is by far my per­sonal favour­ite on the album, which I’m sure will achieve great suc­cess in many singles charts on its release and is already on BBC Radio 1’s A-​List playl­ist. The song is catchy yet unique, with tinny, syn­co­pated drum beats and folk sound­ing indie vocals. The dynamic vari­ety between up-​beat and intensely quiet sec­tions only adds to the tracks likeability.

The fol­low­ing track “Breezeblocks” could eas­ily be another hit single with an incred­ibly catchy chorus and repet­it­ive struc­ture. Although hav­ing slightly grat­ing back­ing vocals, the speed and intric­acy of lead vocals makes the track not only listen­able but also mem­or­able; my bets would be on this as the single to be released after “Tessellate”. The album takes another step back after these two catchy num­bers with its second inter­lude; an atmo­spheric track involving only an acous­tic gui­tar and back­ground noise. The sounds of passing cars and chat­ter cre­ate images of someone sat out­side a bust­ling café jam­ming on their gui­tar. I’m not too sure what, or if there is, a point to this track, but it’s fairly quant nonetheless.

The next two tracks “some­thing good” and “dis­solve me” barely stand out from the crowd, although if either came on the radio they wouldn’t exactly be switched off. Both tracks dis­play the bands unique sound of folky lyr­ics, indie gui­tars and hip-​hip inspired drum beats with some elec­tronic key boards and piano solos thrown in for good meas­ure. Although not among the stand-​out tracks of the album, they move it along nicely, provid­ing a listen­able few minutes of indie music.

Matilda” slows the album down a little, with what can only be described as Alt-J’s take on a love song. The song clev­erly uses simple lyr­ics and rhythm that raise links to many main­stream indie bands, par­tic­u­larly Mystery Jets, yet with Alt-J’s usual edge. The fol­low­ing track “Ms” main­tained this sed­ate qual­ity with calm, howl­ing vocals, a cap­pella har­mon­ised chords and simple gui­tar riffs. This slower sec­tion of the album not only accen­tu­ates Alt-J’s ver­sat­il­ity but provides the listener with a more relaxed sec­tion mid-​way through.

Fitzpleasure” takes on a whole new sound that I would war­ily describe as mel­low Dubstep or Drum and Bass. The track adds heavy elec­tron­ics and a strong elec­tric base to their usual sound, giv­ing a dif­fer­ent fla­vour, again show­ing the bands adapt­ab­il­ity. The final inter­lude pre­cedes this with simple piano chords and vocal ‘oohs’; straight­for­ward yet beautiful.

The final three tracks are a bit more exper­i­mental than the rest of the album; “blood­flood” intro­duces a mod­ern­ised organ and the sounds of chil­dren talk­ing, cre­at­ing an eerie tone, “Taro” is a stun­ning piece of music, using vocals and a solo elec­tric gui­tar. An Indian sound­ing stringed instru­ment is also used later in the song giv­ing a mul­ti­cul­tural extra to the track. The clos­ing song, “Handmade” winds down the album, iron­ic­ally start­ing with a woman say­ing ‘are you sit­ting com­fort­ably? Then we’ll begin’. The slow track is a per­fect close to the album, still dis­play­ing the bands tal­ent yet bring­ing the unique set of tracks to an end.

Overall, the var­ied album is a great intro­duc­tion to this up and com­ing band who I’m sure will go on to achieve great things. Their unique style and blend of folky vocals, elec­tronic sound and hip-​hop syn­co­pated drum pat­terns are unlike any­thing or any­one else around right now. They’ve found them­selves a per­fect gap to fill!

Check them out via these links:



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