Their name is not the easiest to explain and neither is their sound, but after alt-J (∆) played a sold out gig at the Africa Centre in London on Friday night there was something everyone present could tell you – these four arts graduates have created something pretty special.
∆ (made by pressing the alt and j keys on a Mac) met at Leeds University five years ago and emerging on the wider music scene this year they are already starting to turn heads at the likes of Radio 1, NME and beyond.
They have a sound that you know will carry them far but on Friday night there was that feeling of being part of a select few who were hearing something intimate before the hype begins.
When the band took to the stage it was with a humility telling of the freshness of this emerging fame. But once they got a couple of songs into their set I realised my assumption of shyness was wrong.
What I was witnessing was intensity, sultriness even, as they drew the crowd into their mingled soundscapes and revealed their creative process – they were not shy, they were just lost in the music.
The band plays to an eclectic formula – an indie/folk sound interwoven with elements of hip hop, rock, dub and even classical concepts, all pulled together with lead singer Joe Newman’s quirky, mainly falsetto and mostly indecipherable voice – kind of Finley Quay meets the nonchalance of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
What makes this band great – their mastery of rhythms and atmospheric phrasing – dominated the gig and filled to bursting the small room at the Covent Garden venue, that couldn’t have held more than 200 people.
The clever, driving drum lines and quirky rhythms took on a new punch-you-in-the-gut quality that the recorded tracks capture as much as is possible digitally – but these songs were made to be played live.
And none more so than first release Matilda – a beautiful acoustic gem which was the first song to start gathering attention.
On Friday night the sweet, honest song was laid bare it its most raw form. The drums were gravelly and organic and the lulling melody caught the audience in its sway.
With us well under the ∆ spell, the magic continued with Tessellate that started with what appeared to be some sort of vocal trick by keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton before we became aware of a six-person choir singing under dusky light from the balcony above our heads.
The trick was apparently an improvement on Thursday night’s gig at the same venue when the choir was in the crowd, with the audience thinking they were some rather avid fans. But it worked this time and left me feeling like we had witnessed something unique that we will get to talk about when these guys make it big.
Wrapping up the set with Taro – from the new album due out in May, the band gave us another taste of their effortless handling of eclecticism as a violinist and cellist added a haunting sitar-like melody to the tune.
When the band left the stage the fans who have been following them online for the last few months knew it wasn’t over yet – one key ∆ ingredient was missing: Fitzpleasure.
The song is another masterclass in playing with disparate ideas and watching them fall into place – here we have it all: tribal rhythms, rock guitar, heady, floating melodies and grimy dub.
And when the bass dropped in that small room, there was only one way to describe it – pure (fitz)pleasure.
Alt-J’s first album An Awesome Wave is out on May 28.
Find more @ www.altjband.com
or like Alt-J on Facebook
Hannah will be interviweing alt-j for Glow Magazine in the next issue.
Music journalist, pretty much live an’ breathe music.
Hannah Masters-Waage is on Twitter: @hannahmw
Find more @ hannahmw.wordpress.com