Alt-J Rock Out Spark Arena, Auckland 18 April 2023

Alt-J

alt-J brought the majestic and awesome sound of their compelling avant-garde rock to stunning effect for the first time to New Zealand.

A starting point could be the Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray, exploding out into soaring melodic forays. The band is consciously cinematic and literary. That must also make them prog rockers of a sort, which covers a wide range of sins. If you combined the Velvets with Peter Gabriel era Genesis.

Alt-JThe band came together in 2007 at Leeds University in England. Joe Newman guitar and lead vocals, Thomas Stuart Thom Sonny Green drums and Gus Unger-Hamilton keyboards and vocals.

I went to art school basically to form a band says Newman. They hit the critical mass of pop domination with their debut album An Awesome Wave from 2012, which won numerous awards including the British Mercury Prize.

The show begins with Bane, the opening track to their superb album from 2022 The Dream. The sound of a can of Coca-Cola being opened leads into spooky, creeping liquid tones as the singer intones, I sold my soul/ For a sip at school/ Ice cold black fuel. The devil’s drink indeed. A solid mama heartbeat rhythm leads into complex pop sounds.

Tessellate and Breezeblocks. Church choir chants, as two singers sound like many. Somewhere in there is a bass guitar bottom. It must come from the keyboards.

It sounds like syn-drums are part of Green’s kit. The kaleidoscopic sound they achieve on stage is remarkable from just three players.

Harper FinnHarper Finn

Harper Finn, son of Tim and so part of the Finn musical dynasty, opens the show and takes his opportunity to demonstrate what a good pop musician he is becoming.

Harper FinnI first saw him in 2020, when he has one of the first to perform after the world-wide lockdown. He commented on the fact that most musicians were in an enforced hibernation.

This was at the little sister venue the Tuning Fork, at the corner of the big Spark Arena complex.

Euphoria has him sounding like the Smiths merged with Wham. Uplifting and danceable, full of melodic hooks.

He still resembles Morrissey when he was on top of the world. He is the best on-stage dance mover in the extended family.

He writes well-crafted pop songs. A Heartbreak Song sounds like a mellow Elvis Costello sung with blue-eyed pop soul passion.

Dance Away These Days is a stand-out. Don’t want to fall around the mirror ball again. The jangle of the Smiths but free of any irony.

Alt-Jalt-J

The incantatory and hallucinogenic tone this band achieves parallels the likes of Philip Glass and Brian Eno. They seem to arise out of a vast sonic ocean and break the surface to display their gifts and submerge again.

Alt-JDeep gospel tones are present. Delta is a short song off The Dream but is stunning in its vocals.

They go far beyond the subject matter of typical pop songs and are spiritual kin to Lou Reed in the way they craft novels in music.

In Cold Blood references the famous Truman Capote book, a pioneer of the non-fiction novel. Crying  zero’s and I’m hearing 111/ Lifeless back slaps the surface/ Pool killer, killer, killer, pool killer. Eerie and hypnotic.

This is the progression of pop music. From the Sinatra Roar of the Forties to the Byrds’ Jet Sound of Sixties. Now, Electronica with warm pulsing blood.

Fitzpleasure is also a Hubert Selby story set to song. From Last Exit to Brooklyn which has also served as inspiration for Lou Reed in his Walk on the Wild Side, amongst others. The story of a prostitute called TraLaLa and her gruesome end. The song canonizes her and also has a level of black ironic humour.

Alt-JTwanging surf guitar licks abound. They remind me of the great Khruangbin show which played here several months ago.

Matilda gets a huge cheer from the crowd, the closest to more familiar pop conventions.

Hard Drive Gold at the end. Funky pop full of hooks and the inspirational lyric, don’t be afraid to make money boy!

A seamless show of inspirational and unsettling avante-garde indie pop. That was alt-J.

Rev Orange Peel         

 Click any icon to view a gallery of each artist. All photos by Veronica McLaughlin Photography

Alt-J
Harper Finn