Review: Alt-J – An Awesome Wave (2012)

I’m all for shortcuts, be it that they make life much easier. Once you get them down, you can tear through complicated things in no time at all. Isn’t it ironic that one shortcut is making the music world grind to a halt to bask in its spacious, calculated scores? Alt-J, or ∆ as it is on the binding of the CD packaging, is finally in North America with their debut An Awesome Wave released. Though as in the intro to an earlier interview with the band in July, word of the group is not whispered or set aside to some corner to be cherished by huddled hipsters nor has their European festival performances derailed their rapid acceleration. Close comparisons are hard to come by, akin to how it’s hard to pin down Radiohead or perhaps Sigur Rós. The Spring saw their album sold out throughout Europe, mostly due to the buzz around the clip for “Breezeblocks.” But before getting to that…it was truly their festival appearances that affirmed their abilities despite humble beginnings while studying at Leeds University. For a taste of what’s been done, watch how they introduced their set to Lowlands in the Netherlands.

That was the first of three interludes put on An Awesome Wave, a debut that should not be discounted for the sheer fact this young band knows how to inject space thanks to producer Charlie Andrew’s intervention. I’ll repeat. Debut. You don’t usually see intermissions or interludes on debuts, unless you’re edging towards progressive rock or are Murder By Death. Even then, those shy away from barren sound to be more comfortable amid a myriad of musical instruments. “(Interlude 2)” is a mere acoustic, studio recorded, with background noise of the seashore and a indistinguishable discussion between friends. Compared to Indiana’s indie outfit and their “Those Who Left,” the difference is that Alt-J uses them as calming pauses instead of waves of orchestrated emotion. It’s unexpected, especially the second comes right after the quirkily schizophrenic  “Breezeblocks” and its accompanying, slow-motion David Fincher mindfuck of a music video.

Joe Newman’s vocals are distinct throughout. Nasally, which may be jarring to some if it wasn’t so well balanced as on “Ms” for instance. It fits the sporadic melodies and song structures as an oddly comforting constant within sporadic melodies and song structures (think Desmond of Lost). “Dissolve Me” ditches the expected return to uptempo melodies for a straying, harmonious chorus that melds fantastically back into an even stronger chorus. Yet the surprise also comes from their ability to harness and edge closer to indie rock or indie pop melodies instead of going off into Animal Collective weirdness territory throughout for weirdness sake. The homage to Léon: The Professional, “Matilda,” is the most evident example of their ability to manipulate you into singing along.

It’s hard to find portions of the album to say, “This needs improvement” or “What were they thinking?” It’s more intriguing to guess where they may be headed, which “Taro” may be indicative in its imbuing of more traditional instrumentation that makes you think they’ll ditch the snare for the bodhrán on the sophomore release. An Awesome Wave‘s follow-up could very well be acoustic instrumentals through and through and I’d be fine with it, as long as they continue to practice the philosophy of less is more…

Just give us one more “Fitzpleasure.”

Alt-J
Official | iTunes

Rating: 9.3/10

Thoughts?

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