ALBUM: An Awesome Wave
It would be easy to hate ∆ (or Alt-J) on first listen. On the surface, An Awesome Wave is a serious record decorated with goofy moments lifted from trends both recent and arcane, all run through a meat-grinder, dusted with bookworm-y psychedelia and pop-song platitudes. There are the mentions of spaghetti westerns and Euclidian geometry. The rumors of how its lyrics were scribbled on a weeklong mushroom trip warrant a couple more sideways glances, as well as deserved fist-bumps. The world inside of this album is scary, kaleidoscopic and harmonious, like a well-written, scripted nightmare. The twinkling hooks offset by absolutely bat-shit verses and melodies are redemptive without being annoying or particularly central to enjoying the work – you’re free to marvel at the lights or get pulled into the warped images. Then there’s the band’s name. It is structured like a long-running joke teetering on the edge of pretense, but never quite falling overboard.
Needless to say, the Radiohead comparisons are somewhat justified, but there’s a lot more here than a tribute album to any one influence or atmosphere. There are moments of brit-pop adulation — an amalgam of Muse’s ephemera and Blur et al’s fixation on songwriting coupled with Portishead’s morbid drone and slapping drums. There are also the conceptual minutiae that Gorillaz and Spiritualized have toyed with and experimented and succeeded with, all without an overarching theme to speak of. The moments of psychedelia are stacked on top of soaring melodies all in a chorus led by a whiny twang that YouTube comments will remind you kind of sounds like Adam Sandler. Elsewhere, the wholesale dubstep on “Fitzpleasure” reflects a mainstream savvy that the singles (“Tessellate”, “Breezeblocks”, et cetera) are all generally just getting at and to. Likewise, the hits are all composed at the album’s middle, punctuated by humming interludes that function as half-songs; good ideas in themselves that add ambiance to an already atmospheric album. The interludes are not presenting characters or plot, but they do a hell of a job establishing a psychological setting for the album. The work’s finale then takes a turn for the high-concept and experimental, but it pays off entirely on “Taro” where the quirk is balanced with the musical refinement and bookish lyricism. The references to Maurice Sendak and Leon, the Professional are only a few of the pop culture obscura referenced that melt into an already whirring musical atmosphere.
The album’s lyrics and widely disturbing imagery ping-longs between shark attacks, mexican standoffs, and explosions of white phosphorus are sung with such a serene honesty that feels tantric, revelatory. The lyricism on this thing is crafted around arching, aching melody, which at times border on over-the-top, but the album strikes a balance: the hallucinations beget lucid and sweeping tunes. Plus, there’s the fact that the album ebbs and swells when you play it front-to-back with pangs of both eeriness and frisson. The intricacy is there, but tracks can stand alone, too. The interludes guide the listener, but you can just skip straight to “Taro,” or “Bloodflood,” again and again. It retains a sort-of Prince-like aura of continuity — there’s an order to the tracks that can be broken, but they flow with a charm that lends itself to longer forms.
There are plenty of moments on this record where the band drops in a singular element - a left turn that seems to come out of nowhere. Booming riffs on “Taro”, or the acapella deconstructions on “Breezeblocks”, and others to argue about on consequent listens. Or you could just listen to “Tessellate” on repeat, like everyone seems to be doing on Spotify. There’s an album to be discovered, but the tracks are also stand-alone moments.
The singular elements are highlights, but the turbulent one-eighties in genre and atmosphere are some of the only points where the band’s footing falters. In due time, these could very well be the highlights of their work, though. For a band that put mushrooms and an eclectic record collection in a blender, the sounds are rewarding, innovative and charming almost despite themselves. The work reveals colors, bleeding in and out of one another amid textures and moods with time like any trip worth its salt should.
"There’s bears in the wood and they’re out to get me and I’m safe from harm if I stay in this chalet"