UK art rockers, alt-J are certainly no strangers to the awkward task of assigning context to obscure subjects. The quartet met at Leeds University in 2007 as students of English Lit and Fine Art. Rather than pursue the steady income guaranteed from an art degree, they began creating music together under the moniker Daljit Dhaliwal (creepily, a real-life person), later adopting alt-J* as their permanent nom de plume.
An Awesome Wave, the band’s inaugural album, was released in May in the UK and will have its US release in September.
Already hailed by critics as an impressive debut, An Awesome Wave combines elements of folk, classical and downright weird to produce something that, yes, is worthy of the art tag. Singer Joe Newman sings with the same mumbled inflection as Devendra Banhart but layers his vocals with dense cinematic compositions that suggest a general disinterest in the kind of minimalist storytelling that Banhart promoted. Where the elder singer distorted common perceptions of folk with psychedelic hues and sometimes-insane levels of sun worshiping, alt-J inhabits a darker, more ominous realm. Songs reference children’s lore (“Breezelblocks,” loosely based on Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are), assassin film (“Matilda”**), bullfighting (“Something Good” is about the death of a matador), among other disquieting narratives. The excellent “Tessellate” is folk music filtered through stripped down Gorillaz production, while “Fitzpleasure” enjoys a flurry of fuzz distortion and chilling beats. The band might be considered “art rock,” but An Awesome Wave presents a sophisticated sound collage that defies conventional definition. (For the record, alt-J uses phrase “folk-step” to describe their music.)
Alt-J is Newman (vocals / guitar), Gwil Sainsbury (guitar / bass), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboard), and Thom Green (drums). An Awesome Wave will be available in the US September 18. You can stream the album on Soundcloud. For more information on the band, including upcoming tour dates, visit their official website / Facebook. I’ll be covering their Minneapolis show in September, so stay tuned!
*The literal command used on MAC computers to produce a delta symbol (∆).
**”Matilda” borrows from Luc Besson’s Leon, an expansion of the character first introduced in the director’s French classic La Femme Nikita, which, unfortunately, was later re-made as a truly terrible American television series. Leon is notable for starring a very young Natalie Portman.