A Toronto-based music junkie storehouse

‘Folktronica’ is NOT a Word: Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave

My introduction to Alt-J came from a friend across the pond, who sent me the video for Tessellate.  I was immediately captivated by the heavy keys and swift kick of the drum kit and Joe Newman’s chameleon voice.  My curiosity grew, so I continued to creep almost every track I could find of theirs. Because I went about listening to them this way, my maiden voyage of the album was fractured.  I heard the music, but not in the order that Alt-J wanted me to and without the interludes that pepper the LP. In bits, their songs are quirky, melodic, even calming.  Experiencing the entire album in one shot is something quite different.  Awesome? Yes. Wave-like? No. And putting water sounds into the second interlude doesn’t count.

This album marks three very important emerging trends in today’s music scene. Firstly, it’s shows us that we’ve run out of band names. There are none left. Not one. Hence this band’s triangle name.  But they’re not called Triangle Band. They’re called Alt-J, which is the typing path to the symbol.  The symbol is not a triangle, it’s actually the Greek letter Delta. So, why aren’t they called Delta? Or Delta Band? Because they’re not. They’re called Alt-J. And if that isn’t confusing enough, their fans make triangle signs with their hands that look suspiciously like The Hova Sign. But it’s not. It’s a triangle, and it means Alt-J, not Delta. So, are we clear?

Secondly, this album proves the legitimacy of GarageBand: the computer program that allows kids with musical pipedreams to record and mix in their dorm rooms, which is exactly what these boys did.  See? Now it’s a real live album, not just a little wooden boy anymore.

Thirdly, it illustrates that we’ve hit a point in our history where critics are focusing more on the mechanical elements of music rather than their overall effect. Technical scores from the Russian judges have not been good.  Alt-J’s freshman attempt at a seamless musical experience does feel forced at times. They sacrifice continuity in order to push the accepted limits of musical composition.  It is this ‘push’ that has the critics going meta.  Unfair, I think, that the quality of the work on the whole is not the bottom line.  It’s like when you stand in front of a Rothko painting and talk more about the brush strokes than how it makes you feel.  Alt-J is a band you need to judge solely by their effect on your psyche, and like all great art, everyone is going to react to it differently.

I agree that when boundaries are pushed improperly, the result is audio unpleasantness. I do feel they fumbled here and there. There are places on the LP that these attempted advances are not deftly handled, thus creating gaps in the dream sequence.  This is why critics are calling their sound ‘inauthentic’ and they will fight this accusation of pretentiousness for a while, as it is the nature of critics to call hipsters out on this. . It is horribly hypocritical, though; a critic calling a band contrived because of their desire to push the conventional limits of their medium is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, isn’t it? I mean, what the hell is ‘folktronica’? C’mon critics, get real!  Who gets the biscuit for coming up with the new word? Raise your hand. No, sit down.  You’re an embarrassment.

There are loads of good things to say about this album; it is at once chilling and invigorating.  Songs like Tessellate, Something Good, and Matilda will dominate the indie music scene, mark my words.  The production value of the correlating videos would suggest that this band has been around a lot longer than it has. The album has already picked up the 2012 British Barclaycard Mercury Prize, awarded to one band a year.  Past winners include PJ Harvey, Portishead, The XX, even Primal Scream.  They are already in good company.

As far as artistry goes, I believe Alt-J is in possession of this rare gift.  I would have paid to see these attempts at innovation at a museum had their medium been different.  I willingly bought the album after first listening to it on Youtube, and I genuinely congratulate the boys for what I feel is a stellar effort and contribution to the industry, one that is well worth your attention.  They have talent. Regardless of what you think about their tone, you can’t deny their ability to sculpt sound.

Fitzpleasure was the biggest surprise of the album for me. As soon as the bass kicked in I was floating up in the ether. The tripped-out nature of the vocals on this track inspire my imagination. I can close my eyes and picture the singer as a whole mess of characters, including but not limited to: an AWOL army cadet running aimless through the sewer, an insane sushi chef drumming with chop sticks backlit with red light, even a scarved man on a camel cruising over sand dunes at dusk whose purpose eludes him. Kinda like when Homer eats that chilli and sees the coyote.  Yes. My mind went there.  The album is a trip, man.

Tracks to check out:

Tessellate
Something Good
Fitzpleasure
Breezeblocks
Taro

Final thought: My bootie is shaking. Folktronica is not a word.

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Categorised in: Album Reviews, Reviews

1 Response »

  1. Madonna did folktronica on 2000’s MUSIC album, and a bit on her current album, MDNA, see “Love Spent.”

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