alt-J are dazzling as ever
Jessie Atkinson
16:27 19th May 2022

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alt-J’s debut An Awesome Wave — Mercury Award-winning, out of left field, totally unique — is one of the very best indie records of the century so far. Many critics would disagree, and some who hated the record upon its release would even choke on their engorged vocabulary at the sentiment. But as is so often the case, the critics and the music fans would disagree on this subject. At its ten year anniversary show, the enduring fervour for alt-J and An Awesome Wave is on delicious display — and the completeness of its genius evident once again. 

The one-off show at London’s Brixton Academy comes at the beginning of a four-day residency at the venue, the other three nights given over to displaying the self-referential boldness of recent album The Dream. Tonight (17 May 2022) though, is all about An Awesome Wave, which was released on BMG imprint Infectious on 28 May 2012 after several year’s work alongside producer Charlie Andrew. It dropped at a time of relative joy in the UK: the effects of the economic crash were biting hard, but at least there was the London Olympics to look forward to, and a special four-day Bank Holiday for the Queen's Diamond Jubillee (just one week after An Awesome Wave's release). 

With its open world of rich keys, weird but catchy electronic soundscapes and nasty little lyrics (the best kind), An Awesome Wave peaked at number 13 in the UK Album Charts following its Mercury Prize win, but hovered in the public conciousness for more than a year. For 57 weeks it stayed on the U.S.A Billboard Top Albums Chart (when it finally climbed there, seven months after its US release) and has arguably grown to achieve greater cult adoration in the States: in April, alt-J played at Madison Square Garden.

Brixton Academy may be a considerably smaller venue, but it is also an Artist's Venue through and through, and it is here that alt-J have chosen to revisit the record that (as they wrote on their social media) changed their lives. 

For forty-five minutes, thousands are united in bizarre, unsettling song, one voice that sings about sex (via shark bites and triangles on ‘Tessellate’), drugs (via a matador on ‘Something Good’), sexual assault (via broom handles on 'Fitzpleasure') and murder (via breezeblocks on ‘Breezeblocks’) along with Joe Newman and his newly-matured voice.

Not showmen by nature, vocalist and guitarist Joe, drummer Thom Green and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton are instead set up in a neat row on a raised platform, not dissimilar to the staging of Kraftwerk. Transparent panoramic screens surround the trio, with graphics playing out across them in concert with the light show. The effect is a spectacular one, and thanks to it, the gig does not miss any band-crowd banter. The visuals also serve to draw out watery themes from the album: the shark in ‘Tessellate’ emerges from the gloom and later, the box appears to fill with and drain of water while rain falls at intervals. 

Live, audio-visual and in full, it becomes clear again how special a record An Awesome Wave is: not an ‘Intro’, nor an interlude is extraneous to the hits here, but there are, remember, loads of those too: ‘Tessellate’, ‘Breezeblocks’, ‘Matilda’ and ‘Fitzpleasure’ chief among them. Everybody sings those of course, even if they don’t know the lyrics in full, which (another appealing element of the album) no one would if they hadn't researched them thoroughly beforehand. That the entire crowd sing along to every strange vocal quirk and attempt every obscured poetic pirouette with whatever words they use to fill the melody is testament to one of An Awesome Wave's many quirks: it is a mainstream success despite its thorough weirdness.

That popularity has endured. Songs from alt-J's debut have appeared on television ('Tessellate' featured on series six of Songs of Anarchy), in video games ('Fitzpleasure' in the trailer for Battleborn) and anime ('Tessellate' in Ingress) and in the background of numerous filmography. It's harder to cite, but the general chatter of a decade is enough to conclude that An Awesome Wave would fit on many people's favourite album lists, while re-introducing it to those who have let it slip out of mind quickly reminds them what bangers the album held.

For the former group, a night celebrating the album in full is the perfect tribute, one that draws out all of its many exhilarating moments for celebration. The count-up to "yeaaah" on 'Intro', the chilling sniff on 'Tessellate', the harmonies on 'Dissolve Me', that first drop on 'Fitzpleasure'. All of these moments and more are thrown into relief in celebration of ten years since its release. In a full circle (full triangle?) moment, original member and debut album collaborator Gwilym Sainsbury even joins the current trio on stage to play as a four again during 'Bloodflood'.

It's a thrilling play-through; a celebration of each and every perfect moment of An Awesome Wave; an argument for all gigs to play out like this. If an album is this good, shouldn't it be performed as it was intended to be listened to, from start to finish? Perhaps there aren't a surfeit of records that could stand up to the test. As one of the best indie records of the century so far, An Awesome Wave can. 

alt-J played:

(The Ripe & Ruin)
Something Good
Dissolve Me


The Actor
Every Other Freckle
In Cold Blood
Hard Drive Gold
Left Hand Free

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Photo: Press