This obscure-looking new release, with no title graphics on the front cover, has been kicking around in my “pile of stuff to listen to” for a few weeks now. When I saw that they, the cryptically-named, “Alt-J” were scheduled to appear at the upcoming Laneway Festival in January, I moved it to the top of the heap. I’m glad I did.
First, we’ll deal with the issue of the band’s name. Rather than Alt-J, they prefer the “Delta” sign, which apparently is produced when you press the “alt” and “J” keys on a Mac. Since I am working on a PC, I only get a blank space when I try that trick, but for those who are curious, the Greek letter Delta is a small triangle and it stands for change in the mathematical world.
All of this sounds very pretentious and overly-clever, and at first, you might think the same of the resulting music. The album begins with a track called “Intro” that features two alternating synth notes, some shimmering guitar, edgy percussion and indecipherable lyrics. Singer Joe Newman has a singular vocal style…quite nasally, with exaggerated vowel and a somewhat baby-like delivery that reminds me of Adam Sandler (and I despise Adam Sadler).
This is followed by The Ripe And Ruin, an even shorter track that sounds like Newman’s vocal warm-ups. This acapella performance turns out to be an intriguing little exercise that pretty much cleans the musical palette, setting the listener up for what comes next.
What’s next is Tessellate, an impressive bit of post-everything music that manages to be utterly endearing. Newman’s urgent vocal can be described as full-throated, falsetto and crooning, all within the same line. The song itself seems to be a type of seduction…think Barry White for the hipster set.
The album continues on its merry way with Breezeblocks and another wonky vocal underpinned by some totally gripping music. There is a playful xylophone, abrupt tempo changes and some suitable obtuse lyrics: She’s morphine, queen of my vaccine, my love, my love.
This is a band that keeps the listener constantly on his or her toes. And while it may all sound like a jumbled mess, it actually comes together quite beautifully. There is just enough song structure and sense of melody to keep everything together. The end result is music that is pushing forward while still keeping a foot in reality.
The remainder of the album is just as rewarding. Something Good features skittering electronic percussion, rippling keyboards and a vocal that reminds me of Thom Yorke, particularly on his solo album.
Throughout the record there is a folk music feel that comes to a head during the pastoral Matilda. It is also the album’s most melodic track, although the lyrics can be somewhat disturbing: Put the grenade pin in your hand so you understand who’s boss.
The album is brimming with sonic surprises…string section appear out of nowhere, gorgeous harmonies come and go and a surprise track called Handmade, pops up five minutes after what sounds like the end of the record.
With a record this exhilarating, I’m fascinated to see what these guys sound like in a live setting. Their set could well be the highlight of January’s Laneway Festival.
Click here to listen to Breezeblocks from An Awesome Wave: