GIG REVIEW: Alt J (6/5/2013)

Tonight, Alt J bring their eclectic sound to the grand old cinema. Fitting in many a way, from where to begin, the cinematic all round feeling of their musical output, vision and influence, the widescreen presence of imagery and soundtrack, the stage presence (more later), the body of work including such videos as the extraordinary Matador protagonist in ‘Tessellate’, and in their previous incarnation, 4 young men out of the University of Leeds known as ‘FILMS’. We are sure that an hour into the future, lead singer Joe Newman will have approved of the surroundings. The stage set up is a myriad of light structures, punctuated with the violet/purple/scaly/viny backdrop of first and only album ‘An Awesome Wave’. Rumours of an expansion into new soundscapes, a testament to the touring of larger venues due in many aspects to the growing worldwide fan base coupled with a never ending tour now into the better part of over a year, and the, somewhat surprising, catch up of polarised fans to the other side, kneeing in acceptance to the triangular symbolic Gods, all our senses are eager to
be tested. After support from a couple of Florida and New Zealand groups (naturally?) for a UK tour, before the house lights are dimmed and the final act thrust upon us, the bass is tested in this amphitheatre and is of such low frequency and power as to render the listener to shit one’s pants completely. If ever there was to be an excuse to shit oneself, to lose the functions of the bodily system, it could be musically. In the myriad of musical contextures and styles noted today, it can be in comparison the set up, and however dissimilar, the tactics akin to fellow recent Coachella first timer James Blake who shattered the Gobi Tent at Coachella with his unique brand of dub/electronic lyrical lo-fi instrumentalism and romanticism albeit less on the psychedelic sense. Moreover, glancing around at the sense of anticipation, tonight’s venue is completely sold out, the longest of long weekends yet to break into springtime, but who gives a fuck when it ends with Alt J.

Stepping on stage to as was written apt set opener ‘Intro’, the fourpiece aligning up from left to right on stage with similar depth, keyboards/percussion/backing vocals; into guitarist/lead singer; into bass/percussion; into drums, the wide stage fitting the show more than perfectly. An impressive light show begins behind the band, with every guitar note, or keyboard sound bringing out a new colour/light symphony. ‘Intro’s elongated walk into its beautiful sonic soundscape and slow build up allowing to reveal itself with all four musicians outlining their skill on each instrument, it could be seen in others as an instrumental warm up, except this group seem to blow the cobwebs away by presence alone. Indeed, their steady rise rebuffs the writer’s suspicion that there is no ‘no 5’ man, no technicians or roadies with Alt J, showing such care and attention to detail as to laugh in the face of anyone other than themselves fine tuning each instrument before each show, a tactic that was swore to be seen before a recent show the month previous. The word ‘meticulous’ seems to rival the word ‘do’ for the young gentle Englishmen, such seamless and smoothness of sound demonstrated in amazingly nonchalant fashion. You could be forgiven that the Fine Art students ((Joe Newman (Singer), Thom Green (Drummer) , Gwil Sainsbury (Guitarist/Bassist)) and English Literature student (keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton) spent their formative University years not in studying the fine arts or Indeed pursuing the effects of hallucinogenic substances, rather attending a school for the musically gifted. From moment one, even to the unkeen eye a stage set up so strange, horizontal, ironically no triangular shape, drummer linear to lead/singer guitarist as seen in most instances, a sound so intricate and refined, yet so bare and yet so big. Such answers can be found in the realisation that the band practised for more than 2 years before finally signing a deal with Infectious Records, and in some ways, their sound can be attributed to the low noise levels achieved in the very first sessions due to a lack of bass drum or bass guitar as living in student halls did not allow a high level of noise. Fascinating. ‘Ripe and Ruin (She She She)’ came next, which brought the first sing along, the voices of singer Joe Newman and Keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton(frontman??) combining in perfect harmony. With each piano chord struck came new lighting effects, strobes and flashes. The lights set up resembling when Richard Dreyfuss meets the extra-terrestrials in cult film Close Encounters of a Third Kind. Third song ‘Tessellate’ envelopes the crowd, lyrics about triangles, euphemisms never sounded so sexy, the foursome combining to great effect, midriff exposing girls writhing in front in their sweaty inhibition, in a scene resembling the Zion rave in one of the Matrix sequels, the ecstasy not yet worn off from the weekend indulgences for many in this crowd. Surely everyone can decipher what ‘triangles are my favourite shape’ speaks of, and it’s not phallic. To watch Alt J live is a constant test of the senses, but to fathom the complex musicianship is another level altogether, to begin with, the keyboardist/xylophonist seems to take the lead, in both addressing the crowd, and reaching the higher notes on songs, lead guitarist/singer waves around with his guitar in a reserved fashion akin to Yannis from FOALS, bassist/guitarist (and sometime producer) Gwin Sainsbury at the other end helps to lead the rhythm section, at one point creating the beat solely from a set of maracas, at times in his mouth whilst playing bass, at times clapped furiously together in his palms, the sound is that good, it seems like the sound of thunder, whilst drummer Thom Green, the leader of the sound, clearly influenced by two-step hip hop beats, and guarding what can be described as ‘my first drum kit’ alongside another xylophone and a set of bongo drums, create an otherworldly sound, minimal yet resonating, words being thrown around include ‘folk-step’, and accenting every change in pace. The drummer resembles a piper from a marching band in his hitting of the snare, leading from the front whilst his 3 bandmates follow. Where others flair, Alt J are about precision, few words and more flow. A listen to excellent first record, ‘An Awesome Wave’ and it all seems like one song, a compliment. A pattern, a myriad of beats, keyboard, effects and drone like bass movements. A weaving sonic masterpiece, as intricate and complex as The Bayeux Tapestry, maybe taking just as long to master, with an attention to detail like a Leonardo Da Vinci painting. If future releases, Record no 2 and 3 for example, continue the trend, surely this band will be regarded as one of the most important and significant in the last 20/30 years in British Music, yet a sound so organic from the 4 young musicians and yet wholly different has the panache to also polarise opinion, you either love or you hate this band. Maybe that is the way they like it. New song ‘Buffalo’ comes and goes slowly, a repetitive drum medley showcasing a (relatively) new song from the Oscar winning film Silver Linings Playbook followed by ‘Dissolve me’ and ‘Fitzpleasure’, the former very recognisable and encouraging a large sing/shoutalong on final “ She makes the sound the sea makes” lyric. Keyboardist Gil thanking the crowd, highlighting a year this month that first record ‘An Awesome Wave’ came out, the exact day when Alt J celebrated with a concert just up the hill in the old Art School of Glasgow. ‘Fitzpleasure’ owing to its full effect bass blowout and lead singer Joe’s pleasure vocal squawking for want of a better word. But for only fervent and knowledgeable fans of Alt J came a surprising cover, a mash up in the only way they could make good, ‘Slow Dre’, the beat from Dr Dre ‘Still Dre’ on xylophone mixed with ‘Slow’ by Kylie Minogue, an incredible, joyous feat. The pace slowed again with standout celluloid sonnet ‘Matilda’, an ode to Natalie Portman in Luc Besson’s Leon. ‘Bloodflood’, ‘Ms’, and set closer ‘Breezeblocks’ further captivated, closing the set out phenomenally with a powerful strobe light show on fan favourite ‘Breezeblocks’ left the crowd begging for more, if the weekend was never to end. Truly outstanding drumming on the final song, with the quadruple beat and cry of ‘la la la la’ the ultimate force. The music almost seemed a slow and penetrating effect on the senses, metaphorically like the Breezeblock lyric “She’s morphine, queen of my vaccine”, and just as piercing. Resembling the compositional arrangements of Nicolas Jaar operating at 100BPM, lesser than the normal 120/130BPM of techno/house. False endings leading to “Please don’t go, Please don’t go, I love you so, I love you so” met with an enthusiastic response, all four members of the group winding harmonies. Exiting the stage, a few moments later, lead singers/lead men Joe and Gil return to the stage as a twosome in more intimate surroundings for an encore of ‘Hand-Made’ and brilliant mind-fuck ‘ A Real Hero’ a cover of French group College famously soundtracked in Ryan Gosling’s Drive. Gil’s voice switching from high pitched almost falsetto to a baritone. These guys were the real hero’s tonight. Final song of the night ‘Taro’ with its mind boggling undecipherable lyrics and eastern ‘world music’ influences giving the druggy sensed crowd one last chance to dance, they deserved it, girls snaking like Salma Hayek in From Dusk Til Dawn, but enough with the film references. A final bow, leaping off stage, something good tonight to finish the weekend all in all, that won’t make us forget about Alt J not for a long while. This mercurial band will win awards, and more. As guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury notes of the triangular symbolism, “in mathematical equations it’s used to show change,” Change, at least in Alt J, terms is as good as the future is exhilarating.

written by Mike Williams