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Mar 062013
 

The music has no soul. Alt-J isn’t “the new Radiohead.” They’re “the new Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.”

By Adam Ellsworth.

Cover art for AN AWESOME WAVE

Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece OK Computer was playing over the PA as I entered the Paradise Rock Club last Saturday night.

I’m not sure if it was just a coincidence that that album was playing or if it was somebody’s idea of a joke, but either way, I thought it was funny.

Funny, because I was there to see Alt-J, the British quartet some people are calling “the new Radiohead.”

They aren’t, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Springsteen, after all, was supposed to be “the new Dylan,” and when that failed, he ended up being “the Boss.”

Of course I really like Springsteen. I can’t say the same for Alt-J.

Alt-J is a band I’ve been struggling with ever since their debut, An Awesome Wave, was released in the U.S. last September (it was released in the U.K. last May). As I’ve written elsewhere, my initial reaction to the album was absolute hatred, and I had to take extreme measures to listen to it with anything resembling an open mind (please don’t try at home). Once open-mindedness was achieved, I decided that An Awesome Wave still wasn’t my cup of tea (or tumbler of bourbon), but it wasn’t so terrible. It had its strengths.

As that “new Radiohead” tag probably tipped you off, Alt-J (the band’s name is derived from the keyboard shortcut used to produce the delta or “change” symbol on an Apple computer) is not a “four on the floor” rock and roll band. An Awesome Wave is filled with many different musical styles, but its dominant flavor is trip-hop/trip-folk. The album blends electronic and “traditional” rock instruments to create a sound that’s both familiar and fresh. The songs themselves are undeniably well-crafted and catchy, and I’ve had at least half of them stuck in my head at various points over the past six months.

People on both sides of the Atlantic obviously like An Awesome Wave. In November 2012, it won the Mercury Prize, which is awarded to the year’s best UK/Irish album (something Radiohead has never done, though they’ve been nominated four times), and then of course there’s the band’s rapid ascent right here in our own backyard to consider. In September 2012, Alt-J played Great Scott in Allston. In November 2012, they graduated to Brighton Music Hall. Then, this month, they sold out back-to-back nights at Paradise (the first of these nights is the one reviewed here). In September 2013, just a year removed from Great Scott, they’ll be playing down by the water at Bank of American Pavilion. How long before TD Garden comes calling?

Clearly, the band has a lot going for them. So why does An Awesome Wave and Alt-J still leave me cold?

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to crack that enigma definitively, but I think the band’s Saturday performance at Paradise got me closer to an answer. They opened the show just as they open An Awesome Wave, with runs through “Intro,” “Ripe & Ruin” (a.k.a. “Interlude 1,” a.k.a. “❦,” “Ripe & Ruin” being one of three songs on An Awesome Wave to officially go by that symbol), and “Tessellate.” They then broke the running order of the album and played “Something Good,” one of An Awesome Wave’s standout tracks.

What impressed me most in the early goings was just how much the live versions of songs sounded like the recorded versions from An Awesome Wave. When you listen to the album, you assume that there must be all kinds of computers and processors and synthesizers and whatever other electronic gizmos doing most of the work, but onstage you see that Alt-J really is just four guys playing and only one of them (Gus Unger-Hamilton) has a keyboard or anything that looks like a computer in front of him.

Drummer Thom Green was especially impressive. On more than one occasion during the performance, I assumed the percussion sounds I was hearing must have been a loop coming from one of Unger-Hamilton’s electronic toys, only to look over at Green and see him pounding away, like a human drum machine. The playing of vocalist/guitarist Joe Newman and bassist/guitarist Gwil Sainsbury was similarly (if less astoundingly) precise, and Newman’s vocals (with backing from Unger-Hamilton) were spot on.

The problem with all of the above is I’m pretty sure “precision” and “spot on” isn’t the point of rock music, no matter how electronically-based it is. Or, at the very least, it’s not the point onto itself.

There was a certain detachment to Alt-J’s performance. Not a detachment between band and audience; it’s not as if the band played with their backs to the crowd, and of course there were the customary Hello Boston’s and Thank you very much’s. The detachment then was between the band and their music. It was between Alt-J and the very notes that were coming out of their instruments, and the very voices coming out of their own throats.

Looking back now, trying to make sense of not only Saturday night’s performance but also the past six months I’ve spent listening to and thinking about Alt-J, I realize that this detachment wasn’t just on display at Paradise, it’s on display during every second of An Awesome Wave as well. It’s as if the band goes out of its way to divorce itself from the music it makes. They assemble music for the sake of it; they don’t make music for the fun of it. They have it sound far out and different and electro and trippy and on the cutting edge, not because it’s something they feel but simply because they know that they can. They have the electronics and the technical proficiency to pull it off, so they do. Look what we can do, Alt-J says with every note they play. They have no interest in emotion. They’re technicians and they think that makes them cool.

Well they’re not cool. They’re cowards. They’re hiding behind their sound, and their sound is phony. They’re good at it, I’ll give them that. So good at it in fact that if I were to give An Awesome Wave a spin right now, even as I type these words, I can’t see myself completely hating the experience. At certain moments, and during certain songs, I think I’d even enjoy myself. But it wouldn’t mean anything. The music has no soul. Alt-J isn’t “the new Radiohead.” They’re “the new Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.”

The celebrated Alt-J: Watch them turn into robots.

It’s no surprise then that the one moment Saturday night when I really felt something was during the song “Dissolve Me,” a track I knew from An Awesome Wave but that had never stuck out to me before. For the most part, it was a faithful reproduction of what the band had recorded, except for one small change: Unger-Hamilton was playing loud organ chords on his keyboard throughout. Now, ironically, and unlike the other instruments on stage, the keyboard is a pretty “fake” instrument. If you unplug it, it makes no noise and certainly not any noise that sounds like an organ. But there was something about these chords and the sound they made and the way Unger-Hamilton played them that was totally organic. There was real emotion in his playing and in the sound. For the first and only time all night, and for the first and only time in the past six months, I heard a member of Alt-J make a noise that was human.

Of course “Dissolve Me” isn’t one of the songs on An Awesome Wave that anybody really gives much thought to (myself included), so the crowd gave it an enthusiastic, but not too enthusiastic, response. The band followed with a one-two punch of the far better-loved “Fitzpleasure” and “Matilda,” which the audience was more excited about. Alt-J closed their main set with “Breezeblocks” and then returned for a brief, two song encore that culminated with “Taro.”

As I made my way out of the club, I passed a younger couple, most likely in their early 20s.

“That was really amazing,” the guy said to his female companion.

“Calm down, man,” I wanted to say to him. “It wasn’t amazing at all.”

But now, I see that he was right. It was amazing. After all, it isn’t every day you see four British guys turn into robots before your very eyes.

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  11 Responses to “Fuse Rock Review: Alt-J at Paradise — Not the New Radiohead”

Comments (11)
  1. Well Adam, I think you’ve got a mighty big stick up your butt if you are accusing these guys of being phony and that they don’t like the music they create. What sort of inferiority complex do you have to think that they “think they’re cool”? This sounds like it was written by someone in high school trying to prove themselves by hating on a band’s FIRST album. I disagree with you my friend, I think Alt-J has a long way to go. They’re young and volatile, so if they don’t break up I think they will continue to blend genres and create catchy, unique sounds. It has nothing to do with thinking they’re cool, that’s an absurd sentiment.

  2. Rook…I just checked my butt, and there wasn’t a stick. I have been feeling some lower-back pain though, so perhaps the stick is there, it’s just wedged in deeper than I could see. Anyways, I don’t think it’s an “inferiority complex” that causes me to think that they “think they’re cool.” I think I’m suffering from critical judgement. Now, my judgement may of course be wrong (you certainly think it is), but it is mine so I’m going to stand by it. As for hating on their FIRST album, do these albums not count? Am I not allowed to hate on them? I mean, they put it in a store and I bought it, so I assumed it was up for judgement, either positive or negative. More importantly, I have raved over (or at least been very positive towards) the FIRST albums by Palma Violets, Jake Bugg, and Savages, so it’s not like I just pick out debut albums and dump on them, especially considering I went out of my way to say how successful AN AWESOME WAVE has been on both sides of the Atlantic. I just happen to not like it. That’s why I write criticism and not PR…sometimes I don’t like the product I’ve been presented with, and it’s nice to be able to say so. That said, I think if you read my other stuff on The Arts Fuse, you’ll see that I’m pretty positive about albums and concerts. I’m not contrarian just for the hell of it, for many reasons, though one of them being I don’t feel the need to “prove [myself].” I know that I know an awful lot about music. I think I have pretty informed taste. It doesn’t mean my taste is “right”, it just means it’s been informed by many, many hours of listening, reading, writing, and thinking. So I assure you, I don’t feel the need to prove myself to anybody. I’m glad you hated this piece enough to comment on it, and I’m glad to be referred to as your “friend.” And I hope that Alt-J doesn’t break up. If people like them, then by all means, those people should get more music from them. I just probably won’t like it.

  3. I ran across this review when I was Googling pics of Alt-J. I was hoping for a new alternative Adonis my pre-middle age’d heart could fan girl over. After I allowed the disappointment to dissipate, I spent some time reflecting on your words.

    I’ve been listening to Alt-J for the last few months while doing laundry, and have fallen deep in love. Laundry sucks. I think a certain amount of detachment is necessary to keep up on such a thankless task, and perhaps that’s why Alt-J fits the soundtrack of this particular chore so well. In fact, I also gravitate towards this album while running.

    I appreciate the detachment. I appreciate the vacation from emotion. I like the lulling qualities of their laissez-faire attitude towards noise and chaos and instrumentals and voice. It’s refreshing. It’s the anti-Emo. It’s mind-numbing in the very best way.

    Perhaps things are going too well in your life right now. No snark, I’m serious. Come back to this album when you’re sick of putting so much work into Feelings, and let me know if your opinion changes.

    I’m no music expert, so submitting my take on this breath of fresh air is a little nerve-wracking but I’d hate for anyone to pass this album up without giving it a good listen. Preferably while folding clothes.

    • Kelsey,

      An interesting take. I’m not sure if I agree with it (i.e.-this may be very true for you, but I’m not sure it’s true for me), but I appreciate the thought you put into it. And laundry does suck, so anything that takes your mind off it is ultimately a good thing! If you like the album, you’ll like them live (not meant as a back-handed compliment) so I encourage you to seek them out. As I mentioned in my review, their stock is certainly rising in Boston, so, assuming you’re close-ish to a major city, you shouldn’t have too much trouble seeing them at a decent-sized venue. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      Adam

  4. Yeah, don’t really agree! I see your points but I’m more with Kelsey — the music is intricate and powerful in its own right — they go into it, and draw us in with them. It’s not about emoting in spite of the music, it’s about focusing within & through it. I get lost in it every time I listen to it. The perfection in their music and musicianship is just mesmerizing.

    As for Radiohead (my favorite band), I guess it depends on which Radiohead you mean. Certainly these guys are not doing OKC or the Bends… but neither is Radiohead anymore. Alt J is the Radiohead of Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, and In Rainbows. In fact the analogy is a bit too obvious based on the intricate drumming, the guitarist hiding behind a sheet of hair, and the unintelligible but brilliant lyrics… But I think the real parallel is the overall musicianship, and that’s what people are responding to. Radiohead is just flawless live — and you can see how much Yorke & the gang work on perfection — and these guys remind me of that. I definitely see the connection and appreciate it.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for the comment, and fair enough on your point re: Radiohead. My take, is that when I listen to Radiohead, I always feel like they’re exploring. Like they honestly want to try something new, and it’s this ambition that led them from Pablo to Bends to OK to Kid A and so on and so on, progressing all the way. With Alt-J, I always feel like they just want to make “funny” noises. “Wow, look what we can do!” It simply (in my opinion, and I of course may be wrong) doesn’t mean anything.

      Just my two cents, but I appreciate the comment.

      Adam

  5. Hi Adam,

    I am very perplexed by this extreme take: “The music has no soul”.

    I attended Alt-J’s sold out show in Central Park last month. It was a completely different experience to what you describe above. Everyone was singing along and seemed to be having fun. (youtube clips of Breezeblocks for example can attest to this).

    There was a lot of banter with the audience too. Gus humored a heckler and changed the words to Breezeblocks in the first verse. That’s hardly being robots, isn’t it?

    I agree that drummer Thom Green is especially impressive! His performance is very powerful and adds another dimension to the sound live that is beyond what one can absorb listening to the studio album.

    I was blown away by their sound live and to be honest have hardly listened to the album recently, opting for live performances (and recordings on youtube) instead.

    Each to their own, as they say, but for me, Alt-J are a great live band. I can wait to hear what they come up with next.

    Peace,
    J

    • Hey Julie,

      It sounds like Central Park really was a better, more human, experience than Boston, for which I’m glad. I should say though that the crowd in Boston was also dancing, singing along, and having fun. That’s obviously great for the fans, and it’s a testament to the popularity of Alt-J and the band’s very real ability to perfectly recreate their sound in a live setting that their crowds really do have such a good time at their shows. It doesn’t change my overall assessment of Alt-J though: talented as hell, catchy songs that get stuck in your head whether you want them to or not, but ultimately, it’s all smoke and mirrors and “weird” noises for the sake of weird noises. There’s certainly a place in rock/pop/whatever you want to call it for blips and bleeps, but only if they add something. I never get that feeling with Alt-J. With Alt-J, I just feel cold. To close, I’ll just say that no matter what they sound like, I’m glad there’s a young, guitar-based rock band selling out shows in Central Park.

      Thanks for the comment,

      Adam

  6. Adam. I’m sure you’re wowed by Beyoncé shaking her booty or Beiber…doing whatever it is he does…..but some of us are interested in more than a show and appreciate quality.

    You’re clearly a Radiohead fanboy but you need to get over it….the 90s are a distant memory.

    Alt-Js debut album is a superb piece of work & having seen them live on various occasions they are superb musicians and a breath of fresh air.

    I’m sure they could incorporate some fireworks and dance around like morons to satisfy the likes of yourself……but they won’t. Your observations are flawed and your conclusions, nonsense.

    • Paul, I’m not sure where you got the idea that I like fireworks at rock shows but that’s not really important. I’m mostly interested that you brought up Beyonce, as I think Alt-J and Beyonce suffer from the exact same problem, which is that everything they do is designed to say “LOOK AT WHAT I CAN DO!” As such I don’t like Alt-J and I don’t like Beyonce. I think it’s wonderful that you do like Alt-J though. eep enjoying them.

  7. I realize this conversation is quite tired most likely. Having started in June or July I think and ending a few weeks ago but I stumbled across this while looking for new information on Gwil’s departure.I grew up listening to Deftones…..a LOT of Deftones and strangely so did Thom Green believe it or not! I remember the first time I ever heard anything Alt-j and I instantly felt the same love for them that I had for the tones all those years ago.

    It was like nothing I had ever heard and extremely authentic. Alt-j isn’t for everybody and I honestly think they like it that way. I rarely even share their music with anybody partly because I just don’t think most people will hear in them what few do and partly because I just don’t want to! Some have said Alt-j are too smart for their own good. I couldn’t agree more, but I also think they have only scratched the surface of what they are capable of. The evidence is in songs like “Bloodflood” (my personal favorite) and “Ms”. I encourage anyone that doesn’t “connect” with their music to NOT try and “open your mind” enough to do so. This is dangerous and you could be seriously injured. Or possibly overdose. ;)

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