alt-J, Alexandra Palace, review: Expanding their vision is a challenge they need to face

More pastoral moments from the new album lack definition

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Having sold out this cavernous venue in a matter of minutes and with their second album topping the mid-week charts, alt-J prove that winning the Mercury Music Prize, as they did in 2012 for their debut An Awesome Wave, need not be a poison chalice.

The then foursome's delicate take on math-rock came suffused with enough romantic yearning to see them gain a sizeable following eager to lap up their their next move.

On follow-up album This Is All Yours, the group retain their forensic detail while finding added heft, most noticeably in the lubricious intent of the saliva-referencing lead single, a highlight of the set where alt-J find themselves cleverly framed by the lighting crew in stark black and white. Visual effects are key to setting mood for this undemonstrative troupe that face us in an egalitarian straight line, including touring bassist Cameron Knight, a replacement for Gwil Sainsbury, who left earlier this year.

This arrangement, with is nod to Kraftwerk's live return, makes perfect sense: Thom Green's involving drum patterns are key to the quartet's sensibility, harking back to Timbaland's game-changing r'n'b beats, while moustached keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton is closest to taking the role of MC. “Welcome to our biggest gig yet,” he politely offers. Yes, alt-J remain the well brought-up chaps that would leave their hotel rooms tidy rather than trash them, though with the current album some grit has emerged.

With its southern boogie riff, 'Left Hand Free' struts like a home-counties take on Beck, Newman's high-pitched vocal cutting through the suggestion of post-modernist quote marks. There is a similar feel to the surging close of 'The Gospel of John Hurt', led again by Green's brittle patterns and a rich bass sound.

Elsewhere, though, more pastoral moments from the new album lack definition, the band failing to substitute for the immersive qualities of their carefully calibrated studio recordings. A brass section appears for a cameo on 'Bloodflood Part II', their lugubrious part subsumed into the low-end throb that buries Unger-Hamilton's deft keyboard work in an impressionistic morass.

More familiar hooks from earlier work fair better, as with the vertiginous swoop on 'Fitzpleasure' from Newman's fluting vocal to its industrial grind. The sweet 'Matilda' encourages an audience singalong when the clipped funk drops out, while the monkish counterpoint on 'Tessellate' remains strangely beguiling.

At their best, alt-J cunningly weave contemporary rock with pop's r'n'b direction, so it is little wonder Miley Cyrus has emerged as one of their most famous fans, yet as they play ever more unforgiving venues, expanding their vision on a broader canvas is a challenge they need to face.