By Eytan Eilender
One thing is clear, ‘Alt-J’ is here to stay. The band was formed in Leeds, in 2007, by Gwil Sainsbury (guitar/bass), Joe Newman (guitar/lead vocals), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards/vocals) and Thom Green (drums), when they met each other at Leeds University. For years, they collaborated together to write and play music. The name of the band stems from the fact that pressing the “Alt” key & the “j” key on the Apple Mac results in a triangle, or the Delta Sign (∆) to be precise. The Delta Sign symbolizes “change” or “difference” and this is no surprise, because the music of Alt-j is as one of a kind & is as different as it gets. They are a group of musical geniuses who have set out on a journey to create a unique kind of sound, and they have succeeded greatly in doing so.
It wasn’t until 2012 that they released their debut album “An Awesome Wave”, which is arguably one of the more innovative masterpieces to come out of the studio as a debut album in some time. This album is flawless from start to finish, and gained the band an avid following. They rode “An Awesome Wave” for close to two years, until deciding to get back in the studio for their follow-up sophomore album. This proved to be a bit tumultuous. Founding member, Guitarist/Bassist Gwil Sainsbury and the rest of the group had a creative rift, and Gwil decided to leave the band in early 2014 in the middle of production of their 2nd album. It was decided that the rest of the band would continue on their path. Their follow-up to “An Awesome Wave” entitled “This Is All Yours”, was released in September 2014. It was a good effort, but not nearly as cohesive and brilliant as “An Awesome Wave”. They commenced a tour in October & November of 2014 in support of “This Is All Yours” but had still never been to South Florida.
That all changed on Thursday, October 1st in Downtown Miami. There is no doubt that the city of Miami had been waiting with baited breath for the band to perform here, since their phenomenal debut album took the world by storm in 2012. Well, we were rewarded to say the least. First off, Bayfront Park Amphitheater in Downtown Miami is one of the nicest outdoor music venues in South Florida. It holds 10,000 people, but is constructed in such an intimate way, with reserved seats up front and a steep lawn where even standing at the very back feels in very close proximity to the stage. The venue is also surrounded by the breathtaking skyline of the Magic City, which is a great enhancement. The sound is crisp and powerful as well. It would be hard to imagine a better venue for these guys to play at.
The show began with the band coming out in the dark and aptly starting with “Intro” the first track from their 2nd album “This is All Yours”. This was a good 4 minutes of ethereal psychedelic sound structures, and the light show gave us a glimpse of what was in store. By the next song “Every Other Freckle” a daunting cluster of countless screens hovered in behind the band, and the projections of patterns on the screens were a sight to behold. The diversity of what appeared on those screens for the rest of the show was vivid brilliance. It went from static, to Cubism, to smoldering rock structures, to pretty much anything out of one’s imagination and beyond. What was so special about this light show was that it was not in any way about lighting up the band. It was all about creating an atmosphere and evoking a feeling, which is perfect for this band of mysterious magicians. “Something Good” came next, and this was the first song played from “An Awesome Wave”. This is a song that takes many turns. It starts out dark and sinister for a good bit, and then switches up into a joyous carefree segment reminiscent of “Dave Matthews Band” or “Jack Johnson” and then delves back into the darkness. The song “Left Hand Free” followed, and is arguably one of the better songs on their 2nd album. It has a very gritty bluesy Beatles feel to it, and had everyone dancing.
What came next was an example of what this band does best. There is a song called “Bloodflood” on their 1st album “An Awesome Wave” and there is a song called “Bloodflood Pt. 2” on their 2nd album “This Is All Yours”. Both songs flow together so well, that naturally, the band had chosen to play them back to back in concert. The effect is impressive. There is a recurring lyric in both songs, where the band eerily harmonizes what it takes a second to realize as, “C-O-double-M-O-N”. It would take the common listener some research to understand what this lyric even means. What seems like gibberish as “Dead in the middle of the C-O-double-M-O-N” actually refers to ‘Southampton Common’ in England, the park where Joe Newman (Guitarist/Lead Vocals) was mugged, and both songs are about this and the adrenaline he felt, like a “bloodflood” to the head. This segment was incredible, and the light show continued to increase in brilliance.
The band then went on a nice little run of songs from their debut album. ‘Dissolve Me’ which sounds like a song right out of the 80s, was welcomed and got the crowd going. Then the hauntingly quirky “Matilda” emerged, as the vocals entered odd falsetto territory. Some may not enjoy this song, but it’s hard to deny its whimsy. After this came “Ripe and Ruin”, the vocal harmony intro to one of the band’s most hypnotic songs, “Tesselate”. This is definitely one thing that makes this band stand apart. They will masterfully harmonize on a folklore chant which sounds like it’s out of the time period of minstrels and troubadours, and then dive right into a mystifying mind meld like “Tesselate”. This is how it is on the album, and they did it justice in concert to say the least. It’s also wonderful how the band is so quirky, that not only did their name stem from the keys you hold on the Apple Mac to form a triangle, but they represented that with lyrics as offbeat as “Triangles are my favorite shape. Three points where two lines meet. Toe to toe, back to back, let’s go. My love it’s very late. ‘Til morning comes, let’s tessellate.” As silly as these lyrics are, they comprise the chorus of an mystifyingly sexy song which takes itself very seriously.
Though the audience was more than enjoying their originals, the band played a welcomed cover of “Lovely Day” by soul legend Bill Withers. It was beautiful and stirring. Again, the band decided to take two songs which have a joint theme, “Nara” and “Leaving Nara”, both in different places on their 2nd album, and play them back to back for enhanced effect. Then they blew everyone’s mind and put an emphatic stamp on things by closing out the set with the crowd favorite “Fitzpleasure”. This song has such a deep, dark, evil magic to it. It sounds like sweet sumptuous sorcery. They left everyone with their jaws dropped, amazed by what they had just witnessed, ready for the encore.
They took a very short break, and came back out to start the encore with “Hunger of The Pine” which was the first single released from their 2nd album “This Is All Yours”. They played a couple more songs, before closing out the encore with the band’s most notable song “Breezeblocks”. This song has such a wonderful & whimsical nature to it, and had everyone smiling wide. It proceeds through multiple changes and takes the listener on a weird ride, like the bulk of their songs do. The lyric “Please don’t go, please don’t go, I love you so, I love you so” were perfectly fitting to close the night with. It is safe to say that the feeling of the fans was mutual. We didn’t want them to go, and we love them so.
It is rare to find a group of musicians with such an original uniquely innovative approach to their music. The sounds they create, whether it’s with their off kilter vocal harmonies, or their eerie & hauntingly beautiful musical compositions, makes one wonder if they are even from this Earth. They could easily be mistaken for extraterrestrial beings. All in all, the crowd was treated to one hell of a show on a Thursday night in Downtown Miami. It was one of those shows that when it ended, we were all left standing there attempting to put the pieces of our brains back together. There is no question that Miami is now a greater place after Alt-j has graced it with its presence. May this be the first of many special nights with Alt-j in the Magic City!