Alt-J, Alexandra Palace, live review: 'astonishing at times'
Written for The Telegraph [25/9/14]
Mercury Music Prize alumni deliver a mixed set for their long-awaited comeback
Alt-J appeared seemingly out of nowhere in 2012 with their remarkable quirk-pop album, An Awesome Wave. Written in their Leeds university bedrooms, the record went on to sell a million copies and win them the Mercury Music Prize later that year. But Alt-J's rapid success was to some critics' disapproval. With song lyrics that used triangles to analogise lust and reports of uninspiring live shows, the quartet suffered from being labelled as geeky; another victim of the poisoned Mercury chalice.
Last night's sold-out gig at London's grand Alexandra Palace was thus a chance for the group to remind us why they are one of Britain's most exciting bands. Their second album, This Is All Yours, was released on Monday adding extra pressure to their performance. Despite founder member and bassist Gwil Sainsbury leaving the group earlier this year, last night Alt-J acted as if his departure was a small blip in their otherwise extraordinary ascent. They stood proud in a straight line at the front of the stage as if to assert their unity. This was a band to take seriously.
Yet it wasn't quite that feeling for the vast amount of twenty-somethings in the crowd. Favouring conversation over a considered listen of Alt-J's new material live, many burst into life only when An Awesome Wave's singles were played (namely the mesmerising Matilda and Breezeblocks).
The problem was that the 10,000-strong crowd was not there for Alt-J's new songs. In some ways, it was understandable. An Awesome Wave has been streamed more than 200 million times online.
Taro and Dissolve Me had such astonishing thrust live that it begged the question of where the negative criticism ever came from: the latter's texture handled perfectly by frontman Joe Newman who deflated its bulbous basslines with a delicate purr.
Though there were plenty of high points, there were lows too. Blood flood and Bloodflood pt.II both burrowed into themselves with too many flat notes drawn over muddy sounds. Interlude 1, with its ropey harmonies, was uncomfortable to watch live.
If the show proved anything, it's that Alt-J have some unrealised ambition. Warm Foothills saw the band strike a balance between their penchant for chamber pop and fresh experimentation. The Gospel of John Hurt heard colossal guitar strokes, deafening drums and plainchant-inspired harmonies congeal into a delicious, drawn-out gloop. As with their latest record overall, these new numbers look to be slow-growers that reward a patient ear and many were executed well live. Just don't be too quick to dismiss a bunch of triangle-loving geeks.