Formed by four students at Leeds University Alt-J’s success has grown exponentially from their 2012 mercury award for their debut album ‘An Awesome Wave’ to their Grammy and Brit award nominations for their most recent album ‘This Is All Yours’. The band seemed to almost be afraid to be who they are whilst hiding Joe Newman’s distinctive voice by making it more electronic in their EP Films (2009) however they soon discovered their own sound and identity in their two albums. This is most obvious in the refinement of ‘Something Good’ which featured on their Films EP which then settled into their debut album with a much more deliberate flow and feel to it.
The almost undefined nature of the band’s music which is chronicled by the iconic use of a delta symbol for their name stems from the bipolar backgrounds of the musicians, which ranges from drummer Thom Green’s heavy metal upbringing to Gus Unger-Hamilton’s choirboy childhood. The result is flowing harmonies and mantric choruses which encapsulate and empowers the listener, it creates paroxysms of an outer body experience that almost lets them feel they are part of the band. This is the sort of band you need to listen to with a good pair of speakers to really appreciate, there is so much going on in some of the songs such as ‘Hunger Of The Pine’ without it being crowded or distracting, it is constructed with the eye for detail as an architect has for a brilliantly complex building whilst still being subtle. It’s possible to listen to each song over and over without it feeling old because you can constantly hear new sounds that perhaps you didn’t hear the first few times of listening. ‘Breezeblocks’ is still one of my favourite songs even though I first listened to it about 3 years ago. Some people have criticized Alt-J for having similar sounding songs, most notably this view has been offered by two YouTube musicians who uploaded ‘how to write an Alt-J song’. This parody turned out to be a pretty decent Alt-J-esque song (as long as you don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics), which alludes to the monkish layered hymns with an impression of Joe Newman’s voice on the top. Although some Alt-J songs may sound similar this is most likely be because of the interweaving of the tracks in the albums and between albums such as the three beautiful Nara songs from ‘This Is All Yours’ and the bridge between their two albums with ‘Bloodflood’ and ‘Bloodflood pt.II’. These similar sounding songs are therefore not out of laziness but of great deal of thought and should be appreciated.
In an ‘Awesome Wave’ Joe Newman’s haunting voice croonily guides us through a narrative of tragedy in many songs inspired by films, literature and history. One of standout songs from the album is ‘Taro’ which is a non-fictional account of war photographer Robert Capa in his final moments after being blown up by a land mine in Vietnam. The lyrics “Painless with a great closeness” identify that Capa feels no pain in the view that he will soon be joining fellow war photographer and his love Gerda Taro who died in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. It is provocative lyrics like these which continue throughout both albums which make Alt-J the unique, brilliant and quotable band that they are. Joe’s song writing is widely respected and is acknowledged by Ellie Goulding and Mumford and sons who have covered ‘Tessellate’, even Miley Cyrus used ‘Fitzpleasure’ as part of her interlude when on tour.
If you haven’t already listened to Alt-J then stop reading now and listen here or buy one of their albums: