There's a rumble throughout much of Alt-J's set: it's the sort of dubstep, bass heavy production that makes them sound oh-so 'now', layered as it is under folky guitar and vocal harmonies. Think James Blake meets Mumford & Sons (but please, let's refrain from the tag 'folk-step', a term more juddering than their basslines).
That rumble could, however, almost be the sound of hype. Alt-J, a four-piece who met at Leeds University, netted the Mercury music prize for album of the year last week. An Awesome Wave began as a genuine word of mouth hit – when I first encountered Alt-J this summer, it was with bemusement at a small festival stage swamped by teenagers so overwhelmed with excitement it looked like they might be about to soil their ironic tie-dye leggings. Tonight, at a rammed show, crowd members take pictures of the stage before the band even come on.
So now is naturally time for a mildly snooty review. But they don't deserve backlash: there's much to enjoy here. Alt-J won't be to everyone’s taste, and the most Marmitey element is frontman Joe Newman's nasal, slightly sour sounding vocals. Live, these are softer, warmer, and the close, often a capella, harmonies with other band members are richly delivered on tracks like 'Interlude 1' and 'Ms'.
It's a brief set – they’ve only got one album after all, even if it is supplemented with a rather arch mash-up of 'Still D.R.E' and Kylie Minogue's 'Slow', and a round of Happy Birthday for drummer Thom Green. Both he and bassist, Gwil Sainsbury, are busy and inventive in creating rapid rhythms, ranging from military snare to stick beaten bongos, delicate glockenspiel to castanet clicking. Sainsbury even coaxes out a Bhangra groove on his bass guitar for the encore, 'Taro'.
Other highlights include 'Tessellate', which features surely one of the nerdiest come ons in rock: “Triangles are my favourite shape... My love it's very late/Til morning comes - let's tessellate.” Incidentally, the triangular Delta shape is what appears if you hit alt j on a Mac keyboard. But 'Dissolve Me' and 'Breezeblocks' hint at what has made this triangulating troupe so popular: if their music seems cerebral one minute, the next it just makes you want to dance. Both songs feature airy, catchy little melodies and snappy beats, plus the pulling undertow of that darker rumble. The sound of 2012? If the shape fits...
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