Published on October 1st, 2014 | by James Hendicott0
Alt-J @ 3Arena
The cliched and indeed meteoric rise of Alt-J has at times dazzled with its intrigue. Having spent years tucked away in student bedrooms, perfecting a necessarily minimalist style yet reticent to unveil it, the Leeds act equally seemed uninspired by the fame that eventually came their way. The wonderfully portentous Mac-only reference of their name, early refusal to feature their own faces in promo shots and distinctive vocals made it clear they were going to do things on their own terms. Terms, in a leftfield twist, that didn’t turn out to include bassist and founder Gwil Sainsbury.
It’s been an odd career trajectory, and seeing a band that blew us away despite themselves in Dublin’s frankly appalling Academy 2 back in 2012 set up on a stage the size of the re-branded 3Arena’s is bizarre in itself. A few things have changed since that ‘I was there’ moment. Sainsbury might be gone, but his bass parts have been lifted to a notable prominence. Follow up album ‘This Is All Yours’ has surprised us with its quality, and annoyed us with its innovative (read, again, portentous) early ‘in the park only’ listening option. Alt-J have become an unlikely advertising mainstay yet never lost the shiny gleen of something a bit unique.
For all that the two year journey has bought, new tracks and dramatically improved lighting aside, not a huge amount has actually changed on stage. The set up is distinctly minimalist, and there’s little in the way of visual action. Instead the music does the talking. At times that musicianship is utterly outstanding. Those times, though, are sporadic.
Tonight the defining moment comes in that choral ditty ‘Ripe and Ruin’, a goose pimple inducing high harmonized every bit as strongly as on the debut album, and stark in its profound contrast to the fuzzy, dubby undertones of the majority of the set. You could pick Joe Newman’s distinctive nasal vocals out if there were a full choir in place, and in ‘Bloodflood’ and ‘Fitzpleasure’ they’re given particular chances to shine. That, invariably, is a winning formula, but there are other moments delivered at a distinctly plodding pace – ‘Dissolve Me’ and ‘Left Hand Free’ pass by, for example, with marked indifference.
It’s not so much a nervous arena performance as the slight dilution of those soaring sounds and embracing melodies by the airy confines. Certain Alt-J tracks are best felt through the feet, the fuzzy shades enveloping listeners before jagged bass and keyboard edges leap in abrupt protest. The jarring edges are sensational here; coated in rumbling bass and assaulting the senses until all that on-stage minimalism makes perfect sense. Then there’s the slow, melodic corners. In the big enough tracks – like ‘Matilda’, a euphoric, audience-led sing-a-long in parts – it works. In the lesser known ones its the ultimate momentum killer.
At this stage, though, we can forgive a few ragged edges. Alt-J are a tight band at worst, and one that genuinely threaten to fill the deeply affecting indie-hole Radiohead’s electronic leanings left behind at their best. They lack a stage confidence and a handful of tracks that would truly carry them through to the stratospheric levels that the warmth of that early Academy 2 performance. It’ll come, but it’ll take more than a couple of years of playing venues we don’t have to look up on Google Maps.
The encore sums up the genius and the flaws. First a cover of Bill Wither’s ‘Lovely Day’ for which ‘drab’ is possibly too polite a description. Next an atmospheric slow-builder ‘Nara’ and to cap things off, the gorgeous thumping melodrama of ‘Breezeblocks’. A mis-step, a slow build and a key-led melody we’ll be singing all night. It’s an inconsistent and slightly stumbling progression. Perhaps even a step too far, but it’s hard not to get lost in the glorious brilliance of the sharper corners. Even at this level, Alt-J have certainly maintained that intrigue. James Hendicott
Check out Alessio Michelini’s full photo set from the show below.