Album Reviews

ALT-J – AN AWESOME WAVE – REVIEW: BAND SURF AN AWESOME WAVE TO THE MERCURY PRIZE… BUT WHERE WILL IT TAKE THEM?

220px-AnAwesomeWaveThe Mercury Prize, despite its critics, is without doubt a much sought after award (unless you’re Damon Albarn) that has provided a platform for many bands since its inauguration in 1992. Asides the £20,000 prize money, the award generally means a tenfold rise in the album’s sales and a stratospheric increase of the profile of the artist. There are however some exceptions, and since Primal Scream picked up the first Mercury prize in 1992, the awarding of the prize has had mixed repercussions for past winners. Franz Ferdinand (2004) and Arctic Monkeys (2006) have had their debut albums honoured with the prize, and have since gone on to release further successful work and become household names of British music; the latter becoming a generation defining band with Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not their most celebrated hallmark. On the contrary, 2009 winner Speech Debelle has since had beef with her record label, has barely been seen or heard from since and experienced little of the expected increase in profile or record sales…

The prize’s reputation for being awarded to an outsider was departed from this year however, with winners alt-J going into the competition as favourites armed with much touted debut An Awesome Wave. Up against a shortlist that boasted no real high profile names however, the four-piece who were born from the halls of Leeds Uni in 2007 produced an album that is typical of what the Mercury panel favours. First and foremost, An Awesome Wave is a debut album. It isn’t cruising down the mainstream at a rate of knots, comes from a band that is aesthetically quirky to the point of being nerdy, and is generally construed as an innovative record that falls into a ‘niche’ category. Is it maybe testament to the solidity of this album however that it has picked up the prize? Radiohead have been nominated 4 times for the award, yet never won it, and with the exception of Pablo Honey, they have never released an album that doesn’t plug itself firmly in each of the above aforementioned categories. This question will no doubt have a more structured answer this time next year, when the impact of the prize on alt-J’s progression can be more accurately gauged… But just how good is An Awesome Wave?

In a nutshell, it’s pretty fucking good. From the offset it’s meticulously disorganised, with cryptic, almost nonsensical lyrics and a cocktail of genres and styles. The listener is made to wait 4 minutes for the first ‘proper’ track. Tracks 1 and 2 (Intro/Interlude (The Ripe and Ruin)) set the scene for what’s to come with no sense of urgency, but this is fitting with the moods that alt-J want to manufacture. They throw Radiohead, Bombay Bicycle Club, Foals and Empire of the Sun into a bubbling cauldron before dark, uncomfortable, awkward vocals warn of a journey that gives a great sense of foreboding. The swirling acapellas in The Ripe and Ruin are aurally choreographed with cryptic precision, and prepares you for the spiralling bassline that is the cytoplasm of Tessellate.

alt-J, for those of us not privileged enough to own a Mac, is the keyboard shortcut for the Greek letter ‘delta’ on the aforementioned. This mathematical motif is delved into further in Tessellate, with the 4-piece achieving the impossible, and making geometry sexy. The innuendo-ridden track is one of the albums true highlights. The initial dark piano wouldn’t be out of place on Hail to the Thief, before the bassline spirals like taking a helter-skelter whilst under the influence of cannabis. There is a beautiful balance to the song, and in its darkness you will lose yourself in the chorus. Lyrics like ‘Three guns, and one goes off /one’s empty, one’s not quick enough’ elaborate on the tessellation in question, and it’s at this point you realise that geometry can in fact be provocative!

The band are without doubt 4 very creative minds. 1 English Lit and 3 Fine Art students were never going to write conventional music, or lyrics that weren’t up for interpretation. The cryptic words, and in some cases downright nonsense that Joe Newman comes out with remind me of the lyrics of Black Francis, and the rapid, unexplained  mood shifts are typical of a Pixies album. Doolittle and Surfer Rosa were prime examples of beautifully disorganised amalgamations of attitudes and genres, and An Awesome Wave isn’t in too different a league. Throughout the album, alternative indie music of the 21st century is encapsulated in one record with no obvious flow, but somehow it works admirably. Breezeblocks follows Tessellate with an r’n’b style groove and an altogether brighter mood, before Dissolve Me thrashes out an evoking, deep electro bassline that MGMT would be salivating over. The drums in Something Good are just wrong, like a broken record, before the bass, piano and vocals fix the problem and bring everything together in the gentlest of aural kaleidoscopes…

As niche and as quirky as An Awesome Wave is however, its innovation isn’t as radical as some have touted. It’s out of the ordinary yes, but if this is groundbreaking innovation, what chance to the true weirdos of the music industry have of getting their work out there? However, the unpredictable chord progressions, the obscurity but proficiency of the rhythm section, and the fact that Newman’s vocals range from Ian Curtis to Macy Gray throughout the album are testament to just how beautifully deconstructed this record is. The Interludes are without doubt crucial to maintaining the oxymoronic methodology of the album. Whilst managing to capture everything from Mumford and Sons to Radiohead to Coldplay within them, they are integral to amalgamating the obscurity and encapsulate the genres of the 21st century, and provide indispensable respite from mood shift to mood shift. The fact that an album with no obvious organisation or flow is so accommodating shows just what a feat of songwriting An Awesome Wave truly is. It is worth noting however that I still can’t find the rationale for the background track of a car park in Interlude II, but that acoustic picking is just tranquillity in essence… I’ll leave that up for debate.

So what’s next for alt-J. An Awesome Wave finishes without any sense of finality, despite the epic orchestral closing that Taro houses. The album is almost like a gap in the market we didn’t know we had, and this can be a prelude to the fact that there is potentially no limit for this band if they can maintain their cult following and continue to write such defragmented music. The awarding of the 2012 Mercury Prize is undoubtedly a platform that the band could use to propel themselves from, but they have to be careful. Elbow still tour the same material they won the prize with in 2008, and have lost credibility in the process. If utilised correctly, the prize could allow alt-J to fulfil their potential, and perhaps live up to the early cries of ‘they’re the next Radiohead’. Only time will tell, but in the meantime, there’s no reason why they can’t fulfil this. An Awesome Wave is one big oxymoron that by all rights shouldn’t work, but nothing has ever functioned more suitably. Just last week, Bryan Ferry was quoted as saying that the band are “one step away from the dole queue”, but if the album tells us anything, it’s that there is unrivalled potential in the ranks, and that the sky really isn’t the limit. I’m eager for the next instalment…

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