First Listen: Indie triumphantly returns, courtesy of Alt-J

In the era of X-Factor and American Idol, you could be forgiven for thinking that the only way to break the charts these days is by selling your soul to Simon Cowell or any another shady music industry character. But with the release of Alt-j’s debut album ‘An Awesome Wave’ last week comes a ray of hope that the old days of success of small indie artists may be receiving a second wind.

The band from Oxford, England, the same small town that gave us acts such as Radiohead, Foals and Supergrass, are gaining critic’s praise on both sides of the Atlantic and the interest shows no signs of tailing off.

Alt-j conveys an aesthetic that is rarely nowadays in the realm of alternative rock let alone in popular music. It’s something that we haven’t seen since the dawn of the new millennium.

The early 2000s gave us bands such as The Strokes and The Libertines, primarily self-funded guitar bands who went on to become some of the most highly regarded acts of the decade. Soon this trend stalled with major record labels cashing in on the universal appeal that the broad classification of ‘indie music’ had. As a result, the normal formula of working your way up from the club circuit and gaining recognition through sustained and methodical gigging became outdated. Major labels began to pluck bands from relative obscurity and pump tons of money into marketing and advertising in order to get one or two good albums out of them.

Alt-j represents a return to this old-fashioned style of being in a true indie band by disregarding major label offers to sign with Korda Marshall’s influential Infectious Records, the rebooted independent label that has given us acts such as Ash, Local Natives and The Temper Trap.

On top of this independent streak, and one that with the rise of piracy and the digital age is likely to become more and more commonplace, ‘An Awesome Wave’ is up there with the best albums of the year. In the UK, it has been nominated for the Mercury Prize, the highly-regarded music prize previously handed out to bands such as Arctic Monkeys, The XX and Primal Scream.

The album itself is a work of genius, an eccentric piece of music that changes tempo at the drop of a hat, and showcases the immense musical talent that all of the band’s members possess. Tracks such as ‘Fitzpleasure’ and ‘Tessellate’ provide the obvious singles on the album, while others such as ‘Breezeblocks’ provide a sharp and melancholic contrast, giving the album a really refreshing and eclectic feel.

Last Monday, Alt-j performed in front of a packed crowd and numerous members of the press at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. The concert was a triumph as the band reveled in the claustrophobic space provided. Their haunting harmonies and intricate guitar work flowed perfectly as the die-hard crowd sang along to every word to every song while cherishing every precious second. The introduction of a choir and live strings did nothing but reinforce Alt-j’s reputation as an innovative force in British music.

It is by no means a foregone conclusion that bands that make it in the UK will translate to an American audience. People will regularly invoke the British Invasion of 1960s, and modern day super-bands such as Coldplay and Muse, but there are far more stories of great British bands that have fallen by the wayside. Alt-j are unlikely ever to reach the level of these bands, such is the idiosyncratic nature of their album. But by judging their performance that night at The Bowery Ballroom, their cult potential is huge. It is easy to say don’t “believe the hype,” but just one listen of ‘An Awesome Wave’ should dispel that thought for many. With a great album, a solid media foundation and a respectable live following to boot, this is a band that will go places.


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