IN PHOTOS: alt-J live in Manila
∆ is the scientific symbol for change. And like something in flux, British trio alt-J (∆) eludes a succinct description.
Joe Newman, Gus Unger-Hamilton, and Thom Green named their act after the Mac shortcut for the Greek letter delta, a triangle-like figure referenced in their song “Tessellate” – “Triangles are my favorite shape / Three points where two lines meet.” The moniker is a tad hazy – an enigmatic but sublime experience on their records, more so live.
It’s hard to pin down what to expect from an alt-J gig. These lads from Leeds aren’t your ordinary band.
Sam Richard of The Guardian said it best when he said that alt-J seems to have found “success without the fame” since their Mercury Prize-winning 2012 debut, An Awesome Wave.
Their songs are faceless wonders – that is, they probably don’t need star power to boost word of mouth or sales. Yet they have since commanded arenas of Madison Square Garden’s considerable size.
Bands like alt-J are niche in the Philippines. When Karpos and Secret Sounds Asia brought them in to perform at the state-of-the-art but intimate The Theatre at Solaire, it was quite a coup.
Together with touring bassist Cameron Knight (after founding bassist Gwil Sainsbury quit in 2014), Joe et al played a truly captivating set.
From the Indian-inspired rāga-like bridge of “Taro” to the calypso steel drums introducing “Dissolve Me,” alt-J’s dense sound is eccentric but also familiar.
At the beginning of their Manila set, “Hunger of the Pine” pulsed and beeped, as a discordant sampling of Miley Cyrus’s “4x4” would reverb: “I’m a female rebel.” Joe and Gus sang in contrapuntal harmony for songs like “Fitzpleasure” – akin to Fleet Foxes-esque folk rock. However, there is also a hint of hip-hop, as Joe would sing – almost rap – the lines of the rock-‘n’-roll-like “Left Hand Free” with rapid verve.
Their songs recall different genres at once. Some have coined tags like “trip-folk,” “folk-step,” etc. We might as well call this labeling project futile, but even with borrowing from a variety of sources, alt-J’s sound doesn’t fall apart. Joe told Aimee O’Neill for Interview, “We just try to play music we like to hear and we’re kind of absent-mindedly sounding like no other band at the moment.”
There is a method to the madness – seen plain as day at their Manila gig.
Live, alt-J’s songs were tight, almost mathematically executed. But not once did their set feel too distant and calculated, as it throbbed organically.
Solaire was choice, enhancing the band’s sonic profile with its theater’s cutting-edge Meyer Sound Constellation acoustic system. We were easily hooked, going into an occasional frenzy of sing-alongs with favorites like “Something Good,” “Tessellate,” and “Breezeblocks.”
Clad in a St. Vincent shirt, Thom Green caught my attention. His drum kit lacked crash cymbals, often used to accent high points in a song.
This was a fact that had initially escaped me. Charlie Andrew, the band’s producer, explained to Sound on Sound, "I've always wanted [Thom’s] drums to imply a drum machine, but not actually be a drum machine.”
Indeed, Thom’s drumming has lent so much rawness and distinctiveness to alt-J’s sound. This was delightful to behold.
2. Esoteric yet accessible poetry
Alt-J is sonically geared to be evocative. For the band, however, this entails songwriting peppered with some arcane references here and there. This could easily be seen as pretentious and opaque. But our sing-alongs attested that something had resonated with us.
Their poetic set may have alluded to cult films, historical figures, and children’s literature, but they do speak of all-too-familiar thoughts and feelings we share as human beings.
As former fine arts students, Alt-J loves their cult movies. “Matilda” is an ode to the character played by a young Natalie Portman in Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional and deals with the film’s climactic sacrifice, “My defeat sleeps top to toe with her success.”
Off their sophomore effort, This Is All Yours, the metaphorical “The Gospel of John Hurt” depicts the fate of John Hurt’s Kane in Alien.
Eyes probably glazed with tears as the band played “Taro,” an imaginative ballad picking into war photojournalist Robert Capa’s mind after a fatal landmine encounter.
The song is a dirge, addressing Gerda Taro, Capa’s late partner and fellow war photographer, “faded for home, May of ’54 / Doors open like arms, my love / Painless with a great closeness.”
“Breezeblocks” was the obvious crowd favorite, as we echoed lines from Maurice Sendak’s eminent fable, Where the Wild Things Are, channeling the wild rumpus.
3. The music speaks for itself
The band has been known to shirk theatrics, letting their music take the limelight.
They neatly lined up across the theater’s stage – unmoving with their instruments. Joe and Gus would pause for the usual mid-set banter, but they were most likely just being polite – acknowledging the local crowd – barely connecting this way.
But alt-J isn’t known to drag, either. Their songs transfixed a crowd singing complex lyrics and harmonies in unison. There surely was no need for Joe and the rest to hide behind kitsch and personality. The music speaks for itself.
The set came to a close with the apt “Breezeblocks,” just as Gus greeted the crowd, “Enjoy the rest of your night. We hope to see you soon.”
To alt-J, we echo Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, “Oh please don’t go - we’ll eat you up - we love you so!” – Rappler.com
Paolo Abad is a film/television editor and motion graphic designer. He is also a self-confessed concert junkie. Follow his Instagram for live music @outoftunephoto