Sometimes you hear music that makes your heart stop and beat stronger, all at once. An Awesome Wave, the debut album from the British quartet Alt-J, will confuse and lose you before finally pulling you in and holding you captive.
Winners of the prestigious Mercury Award — which has also honored PJ Harvey, the XX and Arctic Monkeys — they’ve been playing on repeat in my iPod for months. I had missed them last December when they were at the Crocodile, but they’re back this Saturday at the Neptune, and I made sure to book tickets months ago.
From the origin of their name to the sound of their music, nothing is simple with Alt-J. Have you ever tried to press “Alt” and “J” on the keyboard of a Mac? It’s the shortcut for ∆, the band’s initial name. Judging it too complicated for their audience — should it be pronounced triangle? Delta? — they changed their name to the computer shortcut. But the symbol has a deeper meaning for the band, as the guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury explains: “In mathematical equations it’s used to show change.”
Change is the key approach to their music, and every one of their songs is like a series of equations with multiple variables. Be ready to embark on an unexpected trip, at odds with all kind of logic. To tell the truth, I felt very disoriented after the first listening. The band seems to take pleasure in composing counterintuitive songs, breaking rhythms when the alternative would sound too natural, and covering multiple musical genres — from indie rock to trip-hop, folk and dubstep. From the beautiful a capella “First Interlude” (aka, “Ripe and Ruin”), to the big earworms of “Breezeblocks” and “Fitzpleasure”, so much is going on that you never know what’s coming next or how their songs will evolve. But far from being overwhelming, it is mesmerizing and transcendent.
These complex melodies are matched by clever and iconographic lyrics which draw from multiple literary and movie influences, whether it’s in transforming the children’s book Where The Wild Things Are into a “love song turned murder ballad” (“Breezeblocks”), or referencing Luc Besson’s Léon (“Mathilda”) and Tralala, the prostitute from Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit To Brooklyn (“Fitzpleasure”). I was personally touched by their take on the love story between the photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, finally reunited after death when the former hit a landmine during the First Indochina War (“Taro”).
Rarely has an album had such a fitting name, and once you give it a chance, you won’t be able to stop surfing that awesome wave!
The other reason why I’m excited about this concert is that it will take place at the Neptune, one of Seattle’s coolest concert halls. This former movie theater in the heart of the University District dates back from the early 1920s. It was restored in 2011 and turned into a multi-use facility by the non-profit Seattle Theater Group, keeping this historic landmark alive and vibrant. Although it’s not small, it feels intimate, allowing a great connection between the performer and the audience.
If you want to give Alt-J a chance to change your life, here is a link to a private concert organized by KEXP last September. It’s 42 minutes of pure awesomeness.
We’ll be back next week with some zesty surprises (hint, hint). In the meantime, have a great weekend!