Album Review: An Awesome Wave by Alt-j (∆)

5 Feb

Do you remember that elusive creature, that almost mythical monster, the complete album? I do. Just. But it has become such a rare occurrence in this degenerating industry of massive hit singles and album filler that it is so very noticeable when an entirely good album comes trundling along. Well, 2012 saw the debut release of England’s alt pop newbies, Alt-j (∆), with the album An Awesome Wave. And it lives up to its name.

Taking their name from the keyboard shortcut for the Delta symbol (triangle) on a Mac keyboard (“triangles are my favorite shape”, sings Joe Newman), they arrive in your awareness already inciting curiosity. Having been accused of a contrived ideal, it is difficult to see where the accusation is supposed hit them. Openly stating that they tried not to push too many boundaries, but tried more to make the sort of music that they enjoy listening to, and having spent five years working on this record, it is slightly contrived. But it is more well-thought-out. And it needs to be.

The varied sound and the genre-straddling nature of the album is surely enough to piqué anyone’s interest. From the ominous piano intro and growing, dirty bass on opening track “Intro”, slipping seamlessly into the intricately stuttering a Capella “Interlude I” before the first track proper kicks in, this album takes you on a journey.
“Tessellate” revolves around a simple yet elegant bass line and well-used spacing, often stripping right down to vocals only, before building the layers toward the end. The record has some upbeat moments, namely on “Breezeblocks” and “Dissolve Me”, there’s the Radiohead-inspired “Something Good”, and the slightly heavier (read louder) “Fitzpleasure” which uses, to bigger effect, the fat, dirty bass touched on in “Intro” which is only highlighted by the clever and gentle interplay with the softer instruments and the breaks in the song.
One of the standout tracks is more delicate “Matilda”. Once again the simple bass and guitar interplay over percussion bears most of the load, but by changing back and forth between major and minor keys, the song has a somber yet uplifting feel.

When listened to with headphones it is easy to notice the balancing, splitting the instruments over the left and right channels, making it easy to pick them out individually. It also enhances the subtle touches used so brilliantly throughout the record and gives each song more space to roam around your head.
The use of spaces and breaks within each song, and the well-placed interludes across the album to a larger degree, works beautifully. At times it sounds as though the components of each song may have been written separately. Like verse, chorus and breaks were conceived in isolation and compiled at a later stage. But each song flows excellently despite the seemingly independent writing. With the almost separate parts of these songs flowing so well on their own, this could be a major factor in the overall smoothness of the album as a whole.

Toward the last few tracks you have become aware of the basic formula and have a good idea of what to expect. While each song has its own defining nuances, the album tends to slowly fade out instead of bidding farewell with a bang in a giant ball of flame and glory, which is a pity. Sort of. You see, this, oddly, seems to fit very well with the flow of the album as a whole. Though you may be disappointed with this unremarkable ending to a remarkable album, the disappointment can be averted by simply turning on the ‘repeat’ function and sliding from “Hand Made” straight back to “Intro” and starting the journey all over again.
Believe me, this is a journey you will want to undertake more than once.

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3 Responses to “Album Review: An Awesome Wave by Alt-j (∆)”

  1. Cliff February 6, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    I went out and bought this album after this review – what a winner!

  2. Cherrybomb February 6, 2013 at 8:43 pm #

    This review is right on. Alt-j is going to be on many 2013 top ten lists this year.

  3. Jason Smith February 7, 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    Best written album review I’ve read in a very long time.

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