Photo: flickr/'NRK P3'

Live Review: alt-J at the O2

As far as progression in the realm of live performance for an experimental folk-rock band goes, few opportunities seem to surpass the chance of gigging at London’s o2 Arena.

Presumably aware that the chances of not only landing this venue but also selling all possible 20,000 tickets was a feat insurmountable, alt-J had to somehow take their intimate, subtle arrangements and deify them. And they did just that – apart from turning up the synths to eleven and relying on some occasional crowd-chanting – by changing nothing. It turns out that their material is just that flexibly brilliant straight out of the box.

The band was audibly tight and focused throughout most of the night

Placed contextually in the belly of the album promotion beast, logic would follow that the set-list would consist primarily of songs from the band’s most recent venture, This Is All Yours. However, the appearance of TIAY was largely encroached upon by material from their debut album, An Awesome Wave, which was covered almost in its entirety. It proved a wise move for multiple reasons, not least due to An Awesome Wave’s backing of immense critical praise, its memorable singles and controlled grooves found on numbers such as ‘Tessellate’, ‘Fitzpleasure’ and ”Breezeblocks’. Pulsating with rhythm throughout its 90 minute run-time, this show was almost entirely devoid of the band’s slower, more folk-oriented album cuts, apart from the inclusion of AAW’s two-part a cappella interlude ‘The Ripe & Ruin’, which aptly served as a short moment of reflection at the show’s midpoint.

Stood in a simple line formation with minimal spotlights illuminating the band’s silhouettes at the beginning of the show, the lighting grew vibrantly colourful and increasingly elaborate throughout the night, rising in waves across the heads of the enthralled listeners to the crescendos of the music. As art imitates life, so too does it seem to imitate performance. Whilst the band was audibly tight and focused throughout most of the night, nailing the hypnotic rhythms of multi-faceted yet emotional songs such as ‘Dissolve Me’ and ‘Bloodflood’ (parts one and two were played in succession), there was a definite acclimatisation at play for the band.

The opener, ‘Hunger of the Pine’, lost much of its ambient, minimalist drama as the percussion and synth line were pitched against one another at divergent tempos, resulting in somewhat of a disappointingly laggy collage of sounds. ‘Fitzpleasure’s’ rousing beat rectified this, but frontman Joe Newman’s vocals were still somewhat shaky, likely with some understandable nerves due to the gravity of the occasion. By the time the third song, ‘Something Good’, rolled around however, the band had found its feet and began hitting a succession of home runs.

alt-J’s cruelly short show was, for the most part, an exercise in pure indie excellence

By far the most interesting aspect of the night’s set-list was the inclusion of an original song that the band had noted that they had not played for four years. Titled ‘Leon’, an original studio recording bearing production elements typical of the band’s AAW-era can be easily found online, yet intriguingly, it doesn’t seem to belong to any of the band’s EPs. Sonically reminiscent of the plinky guitar riffs from Radiohead’s In Rainbows, or even Phoenix’s It’s Never Been Like That, the song’s resurfacing spoke volumes not only of alt-J’s versatility, but their ability to surprise. By bulking up the drum line to give it a starring role on the live performance, ‘Leon’ (interestingly the second alt-J song inspired by the 1994 film Léon: The Professional – the other being ‘Matilda’) was a seeming underdog that ended up a clap-along highlight of the night despite nobody knowing the words.

In a way, this surprise hit that proved its worth amongst an incredibly solid back-catalogue mirrors alt-J’s own attestation of talent in the cavernous hall that has acted as host for some of the finest music acts in the world. Whilst they may not have the towering status to justify an arena residency yet, alt-J’s cruelly short show was, for the most part, an exercise in pure indie excellence. Ending with the iconic ‘Breezeblocks’ as the soundtrack to 20,000 bodies hollering and swaying, it was clear that a career pinnacle was playing itself out at that moment.

In short, alt-J’s triumphant gig had much in common with the work of Jean Reno’s assassin Léon from the eponymous film: it was a sure-fire hit – expertly executed.


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