Coming up with a band name that’s original enough to stand out from the crowd can be a taxing task. Four-piece ∆ (or alt-J) hit upon the jackpot when coming up with their rather unique name, though. The story behind it only adds further intrigue to the simple, yet clever idea. The four lads who met while studying at Leeds University in 2007 chose the name because it’s the function used to create the delta sign of a triangle on a Mac computer. The symbol also represents change in a mathematical equation.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the quartet all studied creative subjects at university – Gwil Sainsbury (bassist), Joe Newman (guitar/vocals) and Thom Green (drums) studied Fine Art, while Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards) studied English Literature. However, while this could all sound a bit pretentious, there is no doubting that the ingenious name perfectly captures the individual sound of the band. In fact, it’s pretty hard to consign alt-J to a particular genre at all, with alt-pop about as close as you can get.
That description doesn’t really do them justice either, with their exciting mixture of crushing synths, beautiful vocal harmonies and folk-esque verses setting them apart from any other act around. Their debut LP, entitled An Awesome Wave, is an example of a new band coming to the fore with something completely different and – perhaps more importantly – not overstaying their welcome. alt-J stick fairly rigidly to tracks around the three-minute mark, with four tracks not even lasting that long. While they may be short, they are oh-so sweet.
The album opens with Intro, which begins with soothing, melodic guitars and sparse keys before the atmosphere develops into something more sinister as the distorted bass enters. It’s followed by Interlude I, which demonstrates the band’s impressive falsetto vocals. It’s an intriguing opening to the album, one that quickly establishes the variety of musical techniques the band have at their disposal. Dissolve Me further captures alt-J’s ambition, combining sumptuous folk harmonies and a stuttering beat to produce a highly infectious and effervescent pop track.
Tessellate is another enthralling track, which seems to be doing so much, while at the same time doing very little. The delicate, ticking beat and solitary keys allow Newman’s seductive vocal to weave it all together – even sneaking in a cheeky reference to the band’s love of a certain symbol (“Triangles are my favourite shape”). Then there’s the most recent single, Breezeblocks, which possesses all the strut and confidence of TV On The Radio, with its stop-start beat and many twists and turns. The gorgeous Matilda is a different prospect entirely, with its charming acoustic melody and Newman’s more restrained vocals fitting for one of the less ‘busy’ songs on the album.
The final two songs on An Awesome Wave also happen to be the two longest songs, but they show the amount of care an attention that alt-J have invested in their debut. The measured and slow-building Bloodflow draws you in with its precise guitar hook before lifting off towards a cosmic conclusion, while Taro finishes the album with an alluring, left-field Bhangra rhythm.
While An Awesome Wave sees the band mix a vast range of styles and instruments – leading some critics to compare them to Radiohead – it never feels forced or over-complicated. There has already been a cornucopia of excellent new talent coming through in 2012, yet it’s hard to think of any act that has sounded quite as accomplished as alt-J. This won’t be the last we hear of this utterly compelling four-piece.