Album Review alt-J “An Awesome Wave”

10/09/2012

∆, pronounced Alt-J (the Mac keyboard command for the Greek symbol delta), are a British art-rock band formed by Leeds University grads (and open hallucinogen enthusiasts) who majored in Literature and Fine Arts. Almost every song on An Awesome Wave has its own beautifully produced music video. Don’t be fooled by the Prince-like symbol identification, ∆ is the first original and groundbreaking band in years because they are just as much meant to be seen as heard.

Many of the videos are intentionally oxymoronic, lending themselves to a soundtrack in coordinated serendipity. Tom Midlane of Sabotage Times refers to them as “intricately entangled in multiple musical genres—folk verses, rock battling bass, pop catchiness, hip-hop beats, trip-hop atmosphere, indie rock quirk, electronic heavy synth-riffs— [interwoven] with heartbreakingly intimate lyrics, peppered with film and literary references.” They are almost impossible to define.

∆ have enjoyed overnight cult success in the UK. Following the US release of An Awesome Wave on September 28, they are on tour domestically (unfortunately only opening for Grouplove).

I listened to “Something Good,” for thirty minutes on repeat the first time I heard it. It sounds like 10 songs I love but nothing I have ever heard, all at once. It’s epic, yet controlled and eerily omnipotent. The video is a dramatically uneventful look at the emotions of a Spanish bullfighter and a blood-thirsting stadium of onlookers. Every angle, color and detail in the frame reeks of painstakingly planned spontaneity.

The video for “Tesselate,” the surprise track that landed in the top 20 of UK charts, is sleezy and voyeuristic in its simultaneous glorification and criticism of the upper classes’ fascination with a gritty street culture defined by poverty. Colorful, melancholy street scenes are artfully and un-ironically on display in a museum, mocking its prideful viewers for believing they have street cred after watching all five seasons of The Wire.

“Breezeblocks” is a captivating narrative of an abusive man tormenting and killing a young woman, told in reverse. The tragic imagery is synchronized to every layered musical detail, coordinated to the man and woman’s every intricate action and expression. Toward the end it is hard to tell if the track or the video is actually in reverse.

“Fitzpleasure” is self-indulgent in a formally artistic way. It sooner belongs in the MOMA than on MTV, not that MTV would ever play a video anyway (let alone something not featuring a reality-show celebrity). It is everything Gaga tries to be but never will.

No track is wasted on An Awesome Wave, in true vinyl fashion (it was originally a four-track LP) it’s meant to be heard together in its natural order.