Alt-J performs at the 9:30 Club

English indie rock group Alt-J performs at DC's 9:30 Club. Photo: alt-J

WASHINGTON, March 18, 2013 – When seeing alt-J, or even listening to them alone, it’s easy to get caught up in all the extracurricular activity surrounding the band. That doesn’t mean that the band is exactly a focal point of high drama. But they do feel like a band with a ton of ideas that just seem to float out there all the time. This sense is best summed up in the band’s name, which for all intents and purposes is like the letter Delta in the Greek alphabet or an Apple OS shortcut. It’s all very heady stuff, and luckily the band’s sound supports the quirky and inventive atmosphere that permeates the band.

This band throws out so many different styles while they’re playing, in addition to shifting tempo on a fairly regular basis that it’s easy sometimes to get lost in the fun house. At times it’s hard to determine what kind of tonal center or connective chord the band is revolving around during its set, outside of Joe Newman’s vocals. They ultimately come across with a light indie rock touch, that also includes elements of folk, dub, synth-pop, overlaying beats, and trip-hop, making their musical output feel a little overwhelming at times. Trying to completely absorb everything this band does, especially during their live set, can be somewhat daunting.

That isn’t to say the band is out of control. In fact, pretty much everything they play is actually under control, but they’re still throwing a lot of things against the wall, creating a sensation that they could go out of control at any moment. alt-J is trying to push over the audience but they accomplish this with a disarmingly deft touch.

Still, about halfway through their recent set at the 9:30 Club where this bands constant tone and style morphing began to feel that this was its true modus operandi, at which point their sound become almost hypnotic in effect. But not in a rave or dance club manner, because they never really get the audience into a groove. But they never lose them either.

alt-J’s debut full-length album is entitled An Awesome Wave. This seems to be the perfect metaphor for the way the band performs live. Listening to this band is reminiscent of the sound of a wave crashing over someone or something. It’s imposing at first –alt-J tosses out a lot of material for the listener to absorb – but once everyone is submerged in the sound, it just becomes the new normal.

A great deal of this effect can be attributed to Newman’s vocals and the way the band deals with the bass instrumental range. They’re well known for their sparse of use bass both in guitar and drum variations dating all the way back to when they first got together. Rather than being readily identifiable, the base line instead takes the aura of a low background hum that hovers about even when it’s not altogether evident. After a while it begins to feel a bit like a mixture of white noise and fuzz.  Oddly, this compliments Newman’s voice perfectly, possessed as it is of a gentle, back of the throat sound that’s as soothing as it is quirky.

alt-J has created a sound that’s singularly unique. They’ve been compared to several other English acts that play with a similar mellow vibe, but these other groups attempt a lot less than alt-J accomplishes. The band’s live set ultimately achieves a level of consistency and coherence one never imagines to be possible.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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