Alt-J Are Worthy of the BuzzSeptember 13th, 2012
Alt-J – The Bowery Ballroom – September 12, 2012
There was a certain geometric incoherence in play as hotly buzzed UK band Alt-J took the stage at a very sold-out Bowery Ballroom last night. Everyone was jammed together in this glorified square to see a band that insisted they were a triangle. See, Alt-J contend their name is more than a collection of letters, instead representing the outcome of a keyboard command, the combination of “Alt” and “J,” which on a Mac makes the shape of a triangle, making their very name an unspeakable symbolic iconography. Every face in the audience pointed toward four faces onstage offering seemingly infinite possibilities. This would all seem overwrought, if it weren’t for the uncommon quality of the band’s debut, An Awesome Wave, and their bizarre and brilliant live show. Somehow helpless against their insistence on three-way vanishing points—or how affected and silly this would seem in less capable hands—the audience and the band intersected over and over, creating a cohesive, if pleasantly limited, little world inside these invented boundaries.
The band opened with “(Interlude 1),” with a choir joining them to offer the band’s Baroque-ish two-part harmonies a chilling and elegiac varnish. One part Mumford & Sons and one part the xx, Alt-J slid between slow-drive, sexy arrangements and these warm duets between guitarist Joe Newman and keys player Gus Unger-Hamilton. “Something Good” and “Dissolve Me,” mid-album and middle-set songs expanded this notion of austere vocals and ebullient keyboard-driven arrangements, accented brightly with tactile guitar picking and high-fret work. The band played their best song, “Breezeblocks,” near the end, the track’s punching vocals and guitars ringing through the balconies as the audience shuffled around chanting lines like “Do you know where the wild things go?” The song’s conclusion, a collision of the lyrics “Please don’t go, I love you so” and “I’d eat you whole,” an awesome and approachable angle to a band that values its weirdness as much as its beautiful arrangements.
“This is the last song on the album,” Unger-Hamilton mumbled over the din as Alt-J returned to play “Taro” as the encore. At least one person in the crowd made the reference that is as controversial as it is possibly correct: “Radiohead.” This is a bit of branding too loaded even for a band currently touring with a gigantic neon triangle as their backdrop. However, there was something undeniable happening here. Alt-J finished the haunting last chords of “Taro” and held up a slightly altered version of the “diamonds in the sky,” triangle-ish hand sign that Jay-Z and Kanye West initiated with a straight face in 2005. The crowd returned it in kind having fully embraced this iconography of two lines and three points. The audience and the band made two of these three, one of the year’s best albums brought to the stage made the third at The Bowery Ballroom, a tidy and discrete geometric universe, a triangle inside a square. —Geoff Nelson