Alt-J and Cave Painting: The Harley, Sheffield

For those not familiar with Alt-J, they float somewhere between folk and indie rock, with complex song-structures, subtle slow-burning songs, and unfathomable lyrics.  They are a reviewer’s nightmare; extremely difficult to pigeon-hole and without easy comparison. Strange then, that the Harley is choc-a-bloc with a very youthful and excitable crowd you’d be more likely to find queuing for The Avengers on a Saturday night.  Alas, they are here, and are in for a treat as Brighton’s Cave Paintings kick-off proceedings.

They breeze through their half-hour set which shares the same reverb-soaked principles as the likes My Morning Jacket and Mercury Rev.  Opener Leaf begins with sounds lifted straight from a warzone, before singer Adam Kane’s brittle vocal escapes from underneath.  A lashing beat interrupts before being joined by huge guitars and ambient synth work to flesh out into something Mew could conceivably call their own.  This sets the tone of the rest of the set; epic soundscapes are only brought back down to earth by some impressively funky basslines. Kane sleepily hangs from his microphone stand on set highlight Rio; a Vampire Weekend rhythm section coupled with Explosions in the Sky guitars and synths makes a surprisingly successful cocktail.  Closer Our Click (say yeah) see’s the majority of the band hammering at floor toms and bellowing out the chorus to transform the ghostly recorded version into something much more aggressive and confrontational.

“We’ll be playing the album in full for the first time” states Alt-J’s awkward chief, Joe Newman.  The crowd are elated with this news as the understated keyboards of Intro begin.  Already we are awash with technical problems as the song develops, but inaudible basslines and peculiar sound levels will not discourage the band nor the crowd from enjoying every moment.  By single Breezeblocks, the band are genuinely overwhelmed by the audience singing along to each word of the coda; “Please don’t go / I’ll eat you whole / I love you so” begs Newman, surrounded by clicky percussion and Frere Jacques backing vocals.  Alt-J prove their love of the less ordinary with the stunning Something Good; blending sodden piano lines and tight folk choruses which finds a balance between sounding familiar and comforting, yet completely unique and otherworldly.  Later in the set, Newman clutches an acoustic guitar for the infectious lullaby Matilda; tender, romantic and completely modest.  Ms begins with a rapid glockenspiel line before exhibiting Joe Newman and Gus Unger-Hamilton’s talents of note-perfect harmonies.  Towards the end of the set, Alt-J play  the versatile Fitzpleasure, complete with baroque vocals and filthy synthesised basslines, before ending the set as they do the album with Taro; cylindrical song structures only broken for an delicate break down topped with guitarist Gwil Sainsbury thrashing his guitar with a castanet.  The song ends with Unger-Hamilton’s sampled violins as Newman fades the volume knob, blending in the crowd’s applause.

Who knows whether Alt-J’s debut album An Awesome Wave and subsequent live shows will propel them into stardom, but with their ability to shape-shift and genre-dodge, all the while creating something so mesmeric and proverbial, they certainly deserve recognition beyond their own expectations.