I wasn’t expecting that much from alt-J tonight. For sure, they are an extraordinary band, perhaps one of the very best to have made themselves known in this last decade. Their idiosyncratic left field indie is mighty hard to pin down. Some call it ‘boffin rock’, while others have placed it in the box marked ‘the new complexity’. But, alt-J aren’t musos at all. There are no solos in their music, and their musicianship lacks flair in the sense of the head-bobbing taut funk-rock of Foals, or the dazzling bass and drum interplay of a Royal Blood. But, they don’t need any of that. They’ve got so many interesting ideas in their collective heads that feeds into their music across a wide spectrum; from ambient folk to raw garage. For many though, they are best experienced as a listening sensation. This way, their sonic adventurism can be intensely rewarded as they throw in a multitude of ingredients, and somehow forge an unlikely yet delicious meal that Heston Blumenthal would be proud of.
Perhaps more importantly, they aren’t the most compelling live act to watch, either. Tonight they have devised a stage show to meet that visual deficit. Separated by what looks like fat prison bars protruding up from the stage, the light show is then synchronised to the three-piece’s music to startling effect. It certainly grabs the attention in a way that three thoughtful looking blokes could not command without. And they take advantage, performing a tight set without much in the way of mid-song banter, although keyboardist and singer Gus Unger-Hamilton does offer the obligatory ‘thank you’ every now and then.
The fact that they aren’t the greatest live band in the world doesn’t really matter. Their intricate, dynamic music would always struggle a little bit in the live arena, and they are who they are. Rather, it’s alt-J’s largely successful musical risk-taking that is where the money lies, in making a music that is varied, often oblique, but always more visceral and pure than they are given credited for. Erotic even, despite what looks might say. “Turn you inside out, and lick you like a crisp packet,” anyone? And in unheralded drummer Thom Sonny Green they have an inventive and risk-taking sticksman who does not know the meaning of orthodox, a player who both drives and embellishes each song with his (off)beats and rhythms.
Beginning the show with the intricate, fragile and rather quirky ‘3WW’, the lead track off their recent album, Relaxer, is risky in itself. It’s great to see them try lesser known songs such as ‘Taro’, and ‘The Gospel of John Hurt’ as they gently play with and encourage our infinite array of senses. The incredibly complex a capella ‘Interlude 1 (The Ripe & Ruin)’ is given an outing, as is new track ‘Adeline’, a song that slowly builds from simple arpeggio guitar to the sound of cats meowing, with drums fast and rumbling. The crowd (at least the standing part of it) are mostly lapping it up, hot spots of left field dancing everywhere, a few sitting on shoulders, the reception and applause getting increasingly louder towards the end, to the point that they themselves start that mass handclapping thing that almost invariably is directed from the stage. Of course alt-J music is often on the cusp of dance music, and there are many groove-able tunes in their repertoire. New song ‘Deadcrush’ is deliciously electro-glam, while ‘Matilda’ pulses along waves of electronica and stuttering drums. When they get out some of their better known tunes such as ‘Tessellate’, ‘Every Other Freckle’, and ‘Fitzpleasure’ half the crowd seem to know the words, some even lost in a trance of pleasure. Yes, alt-J are actually quite sexy.
Whilst there remains many doubters, especially when it comes to the live show, there can be no argument that their appeal extends way beyond traditional notions of showmanship and received wisdom about ‘entertainment’. They really are a very clever trio of men, making some extraordinarily deep and nuanced music, whilst at the same time invoking some kind of pure essence of rock’n’roll. So, for the encore, they first give us the no-frills garage of ‘Left Hand Free’, followed by the highly imaginative indie theatre of ‘Breezeblocks’, a song about desperate love, and apparently inspired by the dark children’s classic ‘Where The Wild Things Are’. Those two songs sum up alt-J: childish and adult; raw and sophisticated; natural and otherworldly.