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Alt-J - An Awesome Wave

A band of British music-nerds go on a hellish, beautiful trip from the ocean to Indochina, from trip-hop to acapella dubstep.

Additional Info

7.8

ALBUM: An Awesome Wave

ARTIST: Alt-J

2012

Alternative

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"

1. Intro
Beautiful build-up; guitars are glorious, drumming measured plus melodies are intricately whipped up somewhere behind a wall of trunk-rattling bass. there’s definitely the feel of this serving as a taste-test, a measured blotter dose. 8.0
2. (Ripe & Ruin)
A psychedelic choir show-tune whose schizophrenically delivered, off-kilter lyrics feel like they’re burrowing into your spine in waves. an odd footing to start a debut album with, to be sure, but it starts off prettily enough.7.5
3. Tessellate
In a turn of shroomed-out savant behavior, “Tessellate” could be the masthead for the whole album or the outlier; the lyrics are hearts on the band’s sleeve - “Triangles are my favorite shape”, with images of shark attacks and Mexican standoffs, are all examples of the album’s vivid, morbid beauty. the soaring bridges, and negative space-teasing breakdown are like nothing in the top 40 canon. The story that’s being told is vivid and disturbing, atmospherically driven despite one of the album’s least ‘out-there’ vocal performances. 8.5
4. Breezeblocks
You’d think the vaudevillian DUNNA-DUNNA-DUNNA would be charming enough, but this is a track with a throbbing bass line and the acidic crooning - Prince-like, running through a faucet of whiskey. Once again, got to give the drummer some for keeping what could have been one of the most vintage moments on the record and rooting it in something modern. The call-and-response refrain at the end is a high point in spectacle and catchiness, like the final revelations of a lucid fever dream.8.5
5. (Guitar)
Starts off on a remote island, far from grime. A moment of spare simplicity, a palate-cleanser. It lets the mind wander a bit in instrumental bliss. Sets the tone for the album’s latter half.7.0
6. Something Good
Another moment of poppy sincerity on a story that ventures between the purity of the interludes and the mental roller coasters almost everywhere elsewhere; there is a fumble here and there in the ability to balance the two, but it’s pulled off for the most part. Feels like an antidote to Tessellate’s roller-coaster bouncing. The twanging elements mark a transition toward some remote trip, of sorts. Reminds me of a bluegrass deep cut lost and dug out of a crate.7.0
7. Dissolve Me
Feels like a love letter to M83, in a good way. The synths are ecstatic, but the momentary lull in the middle is a return to the album’s musical stomping grounds. They do that on several cuts - notably on Taro, but more on that later, where they drop an element out of left-field, never to return - and these flourishes are always high-points. It’s wild, and borderline arrogant to tease, but I’ll be damned if they don’t make the songs stick. The campfire harmony at the end is glorious, and the return of the synth parade is worthy of several fire emoji.9.0
8. Matilda
A sudden return to the acoustic-driven sound of the second Interlude; the most straight-forward of the love-songs on a record that drops platitudes as ear-worms. And I mean, the title character has a grenade pin in her hand at some point. Not one of my favorites, but a totally clean track worthy of a couple listens. 7.0
9. MS
One of the album’s only forgettable tracks, but not for lack of trying. It just hangs on the ability to harmonize before it builds itself up as compelling. The acapella build-up results in an “eh” drop, but it’s consistent with the momentary return to calm in the vein of “Matilda”.6.5
10. Fitzpleasure
Again with the acappella, but this time in a brick-for-brick dub-step homage. If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Memes will also have you think the vocals sound like Adam Sandler on acid. All of this would have you think this track is insufferable, but it’s the bridge’s soaring guitars that makes this track a high-point. 8.0
11. (Piano)
A spare bit of transition. Meticulously put together, but could be filler considering the strength of the tail-end of the record. 6.5
12. Bloodflood
he album’s climax are where the band gets experimental with the instruments; the build-up is almost a post-rock trope, with vocal samples and explosive drums. The verses are the most ‘whoa’ moments of the trip, trickling over the drum-roll. The electronic drums on the third verse are a perfect accent to a verse that echoes the theatrics of “Tessellate” with a deep breath through the nose and a clapping count-in. The peak of the psychedelic trip, so to speak. 8.5
13. Taro
First off, the mandolin sound on the chorus is achieved by playing slide guitar with a roll of electric tape. So maybe I was wrong about the trip peaking on Bloodflood. The song also turns the digits of pi and the fragmented story of a Spanish Civil War photographer into a moment of brit-poppy experimental brilliance, without either being too obvious to seem pretentious. There’s also the return of the one-off element; a perfect Western soundtrack riff, dropped once and never again, and the call-and-return “HEY TARO” - that lead to another harmonious refrain, set over a lush set of strings. It’s easy to obsess over, and it feels like closing credits; the fade to black.10.0
14. Hand-Made
A beautiful footnote; a song about the perils and neuroses of drug addiction, all rendered over gently strummed guitar. A rewarding, deep cut.8.0


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