It’s difficult to know how to unravel Alt-J’s debut album An Awesome Wave: It’s akin to a tightly wound ball of wool, and some sneaky bastard has hidden that crucial strand you want to grasp very cleverly indeed. Thankfully, the band, who named themselves after the key combination for the mathematical symbol for change (a triangle) on a Mac keyboard, ease the listener into the album with a track called “Intro”.
That opener has, however, nothing in common with the similarly-titled (and much more approachable) opener of The xx’ debut: Instead, thin guitar lines weave over a repeating piano pattern, while a heavily dubstep-indebted groove provides a skeleton in which singing, a crushing synth bass, and even the occasional sample mesh to form an opaque, yet beguiling genre-blender. This intriguing start is immediately followed by a short baroque-vocal interlude, which immediately segues into the next piano-guitars-groove-synth track. Pulling no punches, Alt-J are hyperactive, relentlessly tight, and draw from preposterously disparate influences.
If you really wanted to describe Alt-J in terms of reference points, you could have a field day: It’s Foals’ Antidotes, with dubstep instead of indie dance. It’s Fleet Foxes teaming up with St. Vincent. It’s earlier Skream laying off the reverb and sub-bass and embracing baroque polyphony. It’s Bombay Bicycle Club doing a musical jigsaw puzzle. In short, it’s a distillation of just about every musical fetish of the past decade or so in pop culture. But is it any good?
Strangely enough, it is: Alt-J’s songs come together as a whole, and the band deftly weaves their own strand of whimsiness into the whole affair. “Let’s tessellate” is probably the most abstract euphemism for fucking ever, but it works just as beautifully as the break-out into baroque polyphony of “Please don’t go, I love you so” on Breezeblocks, or the aggressive bass and ominous monastic chants of Fitzpleasure. Everything, from the lyrics to the individual instruments to the clever CD packaging, oozes a cheerful drive to invent.
But for all the quirk, whim and musicality, An Awesome Wave falls short of its ambition: Perhaps it’s due to indulgence in genre-crate digging, but there’s a sense that while the album is tight, coherent and driven, it lacks an emotional core: When Alt-J try something more quiet and sincere, the sincerity seems a bit too forced. This is only hindered by the somewhat bland chord progressions, and even singer Joe Newman’s varied and subtle delivery can’t salvage the songs from the tyranny of the click-track beats or the momentous, but lifeless impact of the synth bass.
All of this makes An Awesome Wave a bit of a mixed bag: On the one hand, it’s ambitious, fun and exciting, but on the other hand it lacks enough personal honesty to make it stick for much longer than just being a catchy earworm and really resonate with people. But don’t let that load of moaning put you off: Ultimately, it’s a great summer album and one of the most exciting debuts of 2012 so far. Alt-J still can go very far with their approach, but for now, it’s more than good enough.