alt-J: Music For Geeks

Last weekend, I bought a poster of one of my new favourite bands, alt-J.

And of course, being me, I had to tell people about it as soon as I could. It didn’t really surprise me when most people had no clue who or what I was talking about (I’m sure most of them can’t tell the difference between alternative and rock ‘n’ roll). But there’s this one friend of mine who’s pretty into music.And he had no clue either.

I think he was more startled than I was.

Yes. I know. You’re wondering who the heck alt-J is too. I’m getting to it.

alt-J is change.

No, I’m not being dramatic, though tempted to do so. I mean it – literally. alt-J is the command on a Mac to type the Greek symbol delta, the mathematical symbol for change. It is quite different from most of the other music around. It’s been tagged under folk-rock and indie but it isn’t very similar to them. Perhaps the first album had those vibes but not the second one. Art-rock and geek-rock are a couple of other genres, that are more accurate perhaps.

The band formed by 4 students from Leeds University in 2007, released their first album in 2012. An Awesome Wave was most certainly an unexpected success. There was barely any member of the press that initially reviewed it. But it went on to win a Mercury Prize and sold
a 100,000 copies by the end of the year.

The album itself is a strange combination of sharp and striking sounds, acoustic and folksy tunes, vocal notes and perfect melody. Most of the lyrics are indistinguishable, thanks to singer Joe
Newman’s peculiar vocal style but many of the songs have full story lines and there are a handful of literary and movie references.
It’s all rather soft music. When I was stalking the band on Wikipedia I found out that the style was partly a result of being forced to maintain low volumes in the university dorms.

The second album This Is All Yours, takes a slight detour before twisting back to the style of the previous album. The album’s recurring theme is the Japanese city of Nara. The album begins with a sequence of ‘la la la’s which is followed by artsy and pleasant tunes on one hand and darker tunes on the other, providing an eerie contrast over the next couple of tracks. After that the line up swings back to the now-more-familiar style of the previous album. Though my favourite is still the more traditional and guitar heavy Left Hand Free, this band has to be admired for the wide variety of sound usage and the skill with which they pull it off.

All in all, you can be pretty sure you haven’t heard music like this before. Joe Newman said of their approach to the second album “We try to tantalize listeners, giving them the right amount of something, just before they start craving it. You sort of want to drive people crazy, but not overuse the idea.” It’s not the kind of music you’re likely to get sick of, because you can’t get addicted to it. A post on The Guardian stated of their music, “If Heston Blumenthal were ever left loose in a recording studio, he would likely come up with something like this.” Heston uses science to enhance his culinary act. I wonder if there are notes that sound better together scientifically.

alt-J, for me, was a revelation, for I have a general distaste for anything that sounds electronic. But this is the one band that finally pulls off the perfect balance. It is subtle , while still managing to make an impression. I think that’s the best part.

If you’re sick of the regular music, I’d recommend you to go and take a look at either of the albums. It’s soothing music and you can listen to the whole album without boring yourself. And it’s especially good to listen to while you’re studying. It’s worth a try.

Happy listening. 🙂

Aisha Dantuluri.


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