Alt-J isn’t just a sonically adventurous act, they are also taking chances as a touring band.
The “next big thing” in England played the cavernous Madison Square Garden Monday night. It’s one of the world’s best known venues, and with a capacity of 18,200, holds about 18,000 more than Gotham’s Mercury Lounge, where the band made its New York debut just two years ago.
Granted, the Garden show wasn’t a sellout, but neither is this upstart band. The 2012 Mercury Prize winners stole the 2013 edition of South By Southwest with its uncompromising music, making them the rare act whose music can be actually be labeled “alternative rock.”
“We’re not following any trends,” vocalist-guitarist Joe Newman says. “We’re just making the kind of music that we want to make.”
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The British press incorrectly compares Alt-J with Radiohead every chance they get. But the idiosyncratic Alt-J, which performs Friday at a sold-out show at the Red Hat Amphitheater in Raleigh, is a twisted, unpredictable and curious band – and an acquired taste. No other act packs such odd harmonies and vocal huffs supported by a solid guitar and keyboard attack.
The band’s breakthrough album, 2012’s “An Awesome Wave,” is reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine’s brilliant 1991 release “Loveless.” With both projects, listeners aren’t sure what they’re hearing upon first spin. Regarding MBV, a label CEO thought that the demo tape he heard was set at the wrong speed.
Alt-J’s “An Awesome Wave” isn’t groundbreaking like “Loveless,” but it was one of the best albums of 2012. The wistful “Tessellate” and the unpredictable “Breezeblocks” set a standard.
“We had to get to a certain point before we made ‘An Awesome Wave,’” Newman says. “We worked hard to get this sound.”
Alt-J worked together for six years before it recorded that album. It’s not surprising considering how intricate and layered their music is on each album. “We tried a lot of different things,” Newman says of the record.
The experimentation worked. Alt-J’s second album, “This Is All Yours,” earned the band its first Grammy nomination. “This Is All Yours,” which dropped in September, veers in a number of different directions. The songs are ethereal, melancholy and brooding. Some tunes sound intimate, while others are grand.
“I always thought that balance was a good thing,” Newman says. ‘“We have so many different ideas.”
Alt-J is clearly running with its avalanche of creativity. Synth and guitar lines as well as drum fills are refreshingly left of center. Their bizarre form of folk-meets-offbeat electronica has touched a nerve. It’s difficult to understand Newman as he sings and strums his guitar, but the same could be said of a younger Michael Stipe, Thom Yorke and Kurt Cobain. It’s not that Alt-J has quite climbed indie rock’s Mount Everest, but it’s taking bold steps, and that’s laudable in this slow-morphing era of increasingly precious recording artists.
And unlike many of their peers, Alt-J’s music doesn’t sound miserable. There is tangible joy buried in their sonic amalgam. “We love what we do,” Newman says. “And it keeps getting better and that’s probably reflected in the songs.”
Alt-J’s experiences on stage keep getting bigger and better, too. Fans at the Garden on Monday shrieked at the first notes of “Left Hand Free” and lost it when they kicked off “Every Other Freckle.”
“It’ll be fascinating to see where this goes,” Newman says.