You would consider Alt-J as an international house-hold name nowadays, yet only a mere two years ago, ‘Breezeblocks’ would have just been some foreign word used to describe a type of concrete brick. Their debut album An Awesome Wave received great success, almost too quickly for the group to fathom. Winning the 2012 Barclaycard Mercury Prize, awarded Album of the Year from BBC Radio 6 and gaining three BRIT Award nominations was just the start. They even resonated well with the Australians as three songs from the album made it into Triple J’s Hottest 100 of 2012 with “Breezeblocks” coming in at number three. Now with album number two looming just around the corner, expectations are soaring.
The pressures that come with every band’s follow up record can make or break the end result and Alt-J have certainly had their share of mishaps. The construction of the indie folktronica group’s highly anticipated sophomore album This Is All Yours took quite a turn earlier this year. Although recorded in the same Iguana Studios and produced by previous producer Chris Andrew, one thing had changed – the dynamic of the band. January this year saw founding member Gwil Sainsbury call it quits leaving the band in a more than fragile state. “I didn’t think we were going to pick ourselves up,” frontman Joe Newman confessed to The Guardian, but luckily for us, they did, resulting in an album that may surprise Alt-J fans.
This Is All Yours begins with an “Intro” track just as An Awesome Wave did although this time around, we hear a bunch of A Capella vocal lines sculpting rhythmic patterns until gradually building up instrumentation. From this point on we could easily expect another great hook and rhythm driven Alt-J classic. Instead we are greeted with beauty “Arrival In Nara“. An acoustic song featuring only guitar and piano for the first minute before Newman’s soft vocals and minimal strings are introduced. “Arrival In Nara” seems like it will continue the trend until the beat drops and you hear that distinguished snare crack. “I’ve discovered a man like no other man” repeats throughout, suggesting a sort of realization that may have occurred during a visit to ‘Nara’ (a city in Japan).
One thing I am constantly admiring about these guys is their knack for arranging songs in an effective order. So far the album has flowed smoothly, taking us on a fairly different journey than the last, giving insight into the mellower side of their creativity. It isn’t until “Every Other Freckle” that we get a real taste of familiarity. Rushing drums and vocal lines weaving up scales open the song, thickening out as the song progresses with rich electronic bass sounds and samples. Then comes “Left Hand Free“, a song which was born out of taking a “joke riff” and adding elements that are far from any of their musical personalities. As Thom Green told the Guardian, “I tried to make the drums as clichéd as possible, there’s none of my personality in it”. The cheesy Van Halen-esque power chords that Gus Unger-Hamilton bangs out is almost a dead giveaway. It may be a hit in America as a single but as part of the album, it sticks out like a bad eighties haircut.
“Garden Of England” and “Choice Kingdom” take it back down a notch before heading into “Hunger Of The Pine“, the first single off the album. The song expresses another minimalistic beginning, but rather than using traditional instruments, we hear only electronic sounds accompanying Newman’s voice. “Hunger Of The Pine” is dense with artificial sounds, long held chords and of course that Miley Cyrus sample everyone keeps talking about. It’s “Warm Foothills” that see Alt-J really try something new. The song features splices of vocals from Conor Oberst, Lianne La Havas, Sivu and Marika Hackman. Full of harmonies and pretty guitar plucking accompanied again by gentle piano.
“The Gospel Of John Hurt” heavily influenced by the first time Newman saw science-fiction horror Alien is based around one sequence that repeats throughout with various extraterrestrial samples scattered in between. “Pusher” is another clean cut acoustic tune contrasted by “Bloodflood Pt. 2” which has a slow drum and bass feel to it with theatrical brass and airy backing vocals. “Leaving Nara” brings the album to an end with thick harmonies and distorted electronic sounds with small gaps of ambience eventually leading the song to an end.
I really admire Alt-J for this record. They’ve experimented with new sound scapes and instrumentation without losing what characterises who they are. In contrast to An Awesome Wave, I feel they have created a bigger sense of space and ambiguity. The songs aren’t as busy, giving you the impression of simplicity when really the chord progressions, melodies and rhythms are much more technical than they sound. Some may criticise the group for this album as it doesn’t have as many ‘catchy’ up beat tunes as the last and I’m sure that’s what everyone was expecting. The album draws more focus on just being honest with themselves as musicians. Maybe the adapted sound has something to do with Sainsbury’s departure, maybe not. Either way I applaud them for maintaining their integrity, and for the different but in no way bad This Is All Yours. Except for maybe the mullet in the middle.
Purchase: Alt-J – This Is All Yours (iTunes)