Alt-J – ‘An Awesome Wave’

By making geometry sound raunchy, this Leeds-born band are bridging the gap between Wild Beasts' sauciness and smart dance-pop

In an age when everything about a new band is splattered across various social media, Alt-J are something of an anomaly. From refusing to show their faces in early photos to the kerfuffle over their name (it’s the keyboard shortcut to make a triangle symbol on a Mac, obviously), they’ve already marked out themselves as oddball geeks. Lyrically, their debut ‘An Awesome Wave’ continues in this vein. “’Til morning comes, let’s tessellate”, Joe Newman croons in possibly the nerdiest come-on in indie-pop history. In the same breath he declares his love for triangles (“my favourite shape”) over a smouldering guitar groove. It’s hardly a knicker-dropping missive, but good god, they make geometry sound sexy.

It’s this bookish sensibility and penchant for a sexual metaphor that ranks them alongside Wild Beasts, and it’s little wonder they’ve toured together. But it’s a shortsighted comparison when you consider how the languid melodies, clattering beats and unsettling electronic skits on ‘An Awesome Wave’ veer widely from the forlornness of an Antlers record to the intricacy and drama of early Patrick Wolf.

Like the latter, Alt-J indulge in impatient, complex songwriting. From the twisted a cappella interludes offsetting the distorted vocal and jagged guitars of ‘Intro’, to the wafting clap-happy breeze of ‘Dissolve Me’, each song flits between genres with the rapidity with which one would imagine Alt-J completed their algebra homework. ‘Breezeblocks’, starts as a smooth R&B groove before switching to a magnificent, clattering and sinister plea: “Please don’t go – I love you so!” The ‘In Rainbows’-indebted ‘Something Good’ is awash with piano and soaring melody. And while ‘An Awesome Wave’ might begun as some half-baked stab at a cinema concept album – ‘Matilda’’s drab strum is a paean to Luc Besson’s troubled child-star in Leon – it’s all the better for the added grit, real-life misery and heartache, as ‘Fitzpleasure’ attests. It’s a welcome injection of dirge, adding yet more sounds to the mix with rasping bass riffs and storming vocal before ‘Taro’’s finale, which fizzles disappointingly to the finish line.

The charm of Alt-J’s musical scatterbrain is that it works. On the surface, this is smart alt-pop, but Alt-J have messed with the formula just enough to make this a brilliantly disquieting debut. In refusing to submit to the rigours of a genre, they might just have made themselves masters of their own.

Jenny Stevens

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