∆ (Alt-J) – An Awesome Wave

By Hana Kelly

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With summer around the corner, the nights are getting warmer and the days are getting longer. The time to feel the sunshine on your shoulders and grass beneath your feet is now, and an almost essential component to accompany the long, hot days by the ocean or road-trips to far-off holiday destinations is the perfect summer album. Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave is guaranteed to fit this description.

Recently being compared to Radiohead by British music magazine NME, ‘(pronounced Alt-j) is a four man band consisting of Gwil Sainsbury (guitarist/bassist), Joe Newman (guitar/vocals), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards) and Thom Green (drums). The quartet met at Leeds University in 2007, and chose the name because it refers to the keys used on a Mac to create the delta sign of a triangle which represents a change in a mathematical equation. This is fitting in terms of the unique sound of the band, which ranges from upbeat indie-rock jams to smooth R’n’B beats to soft acoustic ballads.  

The album begins with “Intro”, a smooth and melodic collaboration of guitar harmonies and soft vocals which become fused with a distorted bass. This is followed by “Interlude 1”, a random but entertaining display of falsetto vocals. This introduction to An Awesome Wave sets the tone of the album; one is never quite sure what to expect. At first listen, the majority of the album sounds like a happy, feel-good summer album; however after listening more closely, one discovers heartfelt lyrics hidden beneath the layers of happy harmonies. “Dissolve Me” was described by NME as a “clap-happy breeze”.  Music review website MusicOMH.com described it as “combining sumptuous folk harmonies and a stuttering beat to produce a highly infectious and effervescent pop track.” However, underneath this “clap-happy” harmony, Newman sings the words “Broken sweethearts who sleep apart, both still pine for the other’s side spine.”

The next song on the album is the first single released by the group, “Tessellate”. It is this song that sparked my interest in Alt-J and the seductive vocal talent of Newman. He sings with a certain laziness in his voice that compliments the slow rhythm of the song. “Tessellate” is a less intense song than the others, and tells of the band’s love of triangles and their wish to “tessellate ’til morning comes.”

“Breezeblocks”, possibly my favourite song on the album and fast becoming one of my favourite songs in general, follows suit. The song has one of the catchiest tunes I have heard in a long time, and the final lines “Please don’t go, I love you so” are a pretty good indication of how I feel about the song ending. The track is a bittersweet account of desperation in love.

“Fitzpleasure” begins with a great synth bass combined with yet more arbitrary sounds being made by Newman, however the song progresses to a flurry of smooth guitar twangs. “Matilda” is possibly the most melodic of all the tracks on An Awesome Wave. According to the album as a whole, Alt-J rarely keeps to a constant melody, although “Matilda” is less busy than the other tracks, with simple acoustic melodies and more controlled vocals by Newman.

The typically upbeat “Something Good” concludes with the mournful “something good about tonight makes me forget about you for a while.” Alt-J have also produced a beautifully heartfelt track “Taro”, which concludes An Awesome Wave. The track tells of a tragic love story between two photographers during the First Indochina War. The lyrics are such a strange contrast with the seemingly pleasant melody of the song that one has to listen to the track a couple of times before processing what is being said.

The fact that Alt-J has no clear genre classification or style is a major part of the allure of the band. “We don’t try to go out of the box or be innovative. We just try to play music we like to hear”, the band said in an interview with Interview Magazine (http://www.interviewmagazine.com/music/discovery-alt-j#). This band is a true example of how breaking away from what is expected and doing your own thing will reward you in the end.

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