Joe Stile | BASSic
Published: Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, November 27, 2012 08:11
British alternative indie rockers Alt−J recently received the 2012 Barclaycard Mercury Prize, elevating them from relative obscurity to the world’s stage. As they possess an impressively unique feel, it’s safe to say the award was well deserved.
Alt−J’s rather horrendously titled debut album, “An Awesome Wave” (2012), is an assured mix filled with exemplary tracks. The lead single, “Fitzpleasure,” embodies exactly what the band does best. The track combines elements of pop, folk, indie−rock and electronic music to create a dense, yet accessible song. Though the quartet throws a variety of ingredients into its songs, the tracks’ catchy, grounding melodies keep them from feeling overloaded. Even without decoration, songs like these would still work quite well.
Alt−J’s musical blending also helps songs like “Fitzpleasure” avoid falling into any particular genre, enabling the group to cultivate its own unique sound. Even more importantly, these rockers sound like they’re having fun on “Fitzpleasure,” which prevents the song from ever seeming like a pretentious musical theory exam.
“Fitzpleasure” starts off with a cappella chanting before an electronic drum and a rumbling bass kick in. With its strapping folk−tronic sound, the beginning of the song feels very much as if Mumford and Sons were playing with Aphex Twin. The growling bass drop and reverberating humming throughout make it pulse with life.
Most of the song’s lyrics are completely incomprehensible. Lead singer Joe Newman chooses to make his vocals more about constructing an atmosphere than about enunciation. Whether you understand them or not, the esoteric nature of his lyrics allows listeners to hear and read into them as they wish to create their own personal connections to the music.
About a minute into “Fitzpleasure,” Alt−J shifts tempos and strips away the aggressiveness of the bass drop, switching it out for a celestially crafted guitar and drum harmony. The transition is exquisite, broadening the range of emotions this short song can elicit.
The experimental nature of the song and its indecipherable words make Alt−J’s sound similar to that of Icelandic alt−rockers Sigur Ros or Mumford and Sons, bands that mix different classes of music, but never fail to create mesmerizing melodies.
Radiohead is another group that often gets brought up when people talk about Alt−J, due to the similar grounds both bands tread on. However, I believe that this comparison is unfair and is generally used pejoratively against Alt−J and its songs — only a minute number of bands has ever reached Radiohead’s acute artistic level.
Still, it’s clear that the Radiohead comparisons come from Alt−J’s eclectic stylings and Newman’s vocals, which often sound like they could have come straight from Radiohead’s seminal “OK Computer” (1997). During “Fitzpleasure” — and the entire album for that matter — there are times when it’s hard not to hear the similarities between these songs and Thom Yorke’s singing on tracks like “Exit Music (For a Film)” and “Electioneering.” A prime example is when Newman enunciates his elevating “oohs” toward the end of “Fitzpleasure.”
All comparisons to other bands aside, Alt−J has a surprisingly distinctive sound of its own. This is especially impressive given that the band has only released one album. It’s rare for a group to have such a tight grip on its music so early in its career, and this kind of confidence is apparent all through “Fitzpleasure.”
Alternative rockers Alt−J have created a song that not only stands on its own but also signifies a promising career. Hopefully, a larger fan base will accompany the band’s critical praise and awards so that that its notable sound will finally be appreciated.
Joe Stile is a senior majoring in political science. He can be reached at Joseph.Stile@tufts.edu.