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Album Review: Alt-J – This Is All Yours

Album Review: Alt-J – This Is All Yours

Artist: Alt-J
Album: This Is All Yours
Tracks: 13 (+1 Bonus Track)
Release Date: 15th September 2014
Label: Infectious

In 2012, four gentlemen from Leeds stormed the underground of independent rock in an awesome wave, which proved to be an ironically apt title for their début album, considering the way their success bloomed. The singles Fitzpleasure, Breezeblocks and Tessellate sparked a bought of fame which saw their album to winning the Album of the Year award from the Ivor Novello Award ceremony and a place at number 13 in the UK chart.

The band is arguably most widely recognised for lead singer Joe Newman’s unusual vocal delivery, which proves to be nasal, strained and throaty, yet in all the best ways. They have also been known for their unusual instrumental sections, and the way they’re layered, using synthesised voices, cowbells, keys and effect pedals, as well  as a peculiar use of time signatures, levelling those created by the American alternative rock band Tool. 

Following two years of extensive touring and very little signs of new music on the horizon, the band must have been able to feel the anxiety of their fan-base, and released a single from seemingly out of the blue by the name of Hunger of the Pine, you can read what we thought of the single by clicking here. From the review, you will notice that the sound of the single was far from what fans were expecting. Much of Alt-J’s music has been riff/ostinato oriented, featuring heavy staccato on the guitars, dominating bass guitars that could shake the dust from the ceiling, and ambient synthesised melodies occupying the background of the track, in all creating a totally busy wall of sound. However, Hunger of the Pine, although shared the characteristic of being based around the wall of sound, was much slower, much more meditative. The melodies were far more electronic than previous songs, and the vocals were used more as another instrument, rather than a centre piece. By this I mean, Newman’s voice adhered strictly to the beat of the time, sounded far more prosthetic and more guttural, and in ways blended into the song so naturally, it was hard to accept the humanity behind the sound. This made the band sound more serious, more determined to make an influential piece of music, and valued the emotion in the music and the feelings it evoked rather than the narrative heavy approach of their previous album.

A few weeks later, the band followed up with another single by the name of Left Hand Free. After the release of Hunger of the Pine, we had all expected the album to sound very similar to this, dark and ambient, and more sinister, yet Left Hand Free is totally different again. I really liked this as a single, as it showed that the band had plenty of tricks up their sleeves in the run up to this album, and I’ve always appreciated an artist that shows the ability to diversify their music. As you will see from the video below, the track would not at all be out-of-place on a Cream, or a Clapton album. There is a definite 1960’s groove to it, free and rock and roll, and the harmonies provided in the background invoke images of the Vandellas hiding somewhere in the track. Juxtaposed with the first single and some of the other more ambient tracks on the record, this is a source of light-relief that lifts the dark cloud and allows us to feel a little motivated, a little like we want to sing along even though we don’t know the words and a little like we want to have a groove in our kitchens whilst we’re making the night’s meal.

The record’s third single was Every Other Freckle. When I first heard the track I was definitely in two minds about what I was hearing, with lyrics like: “…Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet”, I couldn’t quite work out if I was wearing some twisted poetry implying a sense to learn a person wholly and completely, which could be wrangled to be sweet, or if it was the stage directions to a porno film, which seemed the more likely. What further caught my attention and cocked my head in a confused fashion is the vocal melody half-way through the song, instead of a solo, Alt-J have chosen to opt for a choral ‘scat’ section which is pitched to be a marching anthem for the Confederate Army or the entrance horns to a medieval joust festival. This single is one of the most similar to their previous work on An Awesome Wave, and old fans will definitely feel at home in the twinkly instrumentals and Newman’s brash and almost comical tone. Lyrically, Every Other Freckle is vaguely familiar. When I say vaguely, I have always found that Alt-J’s lyrics are almost like Ginsberg poetry, not everything makes sense unless you’re the author, and at best, you can only take what you can from what you hear. New listeners to the band will definitely find this track an unusual experience due to the absence of clear narrative, but there’s definitely something to take away from the song, once you stop trying to understand it.

However, one thing that really impresses me about this single is that director Olivier Groulx has produced two music videos to this song, one appended a ‘Boy’ and the other appended as ‘Girl’. For me, this really displays that the band have worked hard to create more than just an album, they’ve created an art piece, in all senses of the medium, from album art to music video to the sound. I love feeling that I’m a part of a creative project of such scale. 

After the band had released the singles from This Is All Yours they created an app which made the album available free to stream from certain locations, in the sense that your GPS location was essentially your pass code for the album stream.

It’s clear to see from the singles alone that Alt-J have chosen new avenues with This Is All Yours and evidently each track is, and has the potential to be vastly different from the track that came before it. The record was almost entirely written over the time that the band were touring their first album An Awesome Wave, with the exception of Hunger of the Pine which was described to have been written in “a really cool little converted Warehouse in Hackney, very cliché East London”, which definitely provides an explanation to its unique sound compared to the rest of the tracks on the album. Keys player Gus Unger-Hamilton stated that the cycle of the album was “Arriving in Nara”, “Nara” and “Leaving Nara.” Nara being a city in Japan. This influence is very clear throughout the album as there are many sections that possess an oriental feel in the keys. 

One of those songs somewhere in that cycle is Choice Kingdom. The track is gentle, and almost like a lullaby, which is one aspect I have always appreciated about Alt-J’s music, the calming effect it has on a tired mind, which I always seem to have. The guitar arpeggio hides delicately in the background whilst rhythmic drumming on African style drums such as djembes occupies the foreground, it’s meditative and reassuring. It’s not always clear to make out the words being sung as is the case with many tracks on this album, which at times can be an issue because you feel that perhaps your computer’s mixing desk hasn’t dealt with the levels on the master and it is lost in the stereo, or your volume isn’t up high enough. Yet at other times, you feel as though it doesn’t matter what he’s saying, that it’s not important in comparison to the timbre or the mood of the song. One strength of the album is that at many times the ambience supersedes all other aspects of the track.

One other notable track from the album is track 12 Bloodflood Pt. II, a follow-up to Bloodflood, also track 12, on An Awesome Wave. It’s one of the most ghostly tracks on the album, it opens with a solid natural piano, confident and definite, at times discordant and uncomfortable, but deliberately so. This is followed by a fast paced drum beat, sort of at the pace of an egg shaker in a blender, and once again the choral harmonies make an appearance, haunting the track in the foreground this time, taking precedence over the piano and the drum beat. There is something almost hymnal to this track, with the deep brass completing the layers of sound. 

Overall, Alt-J’s sophomore effort is truly a staggering piece of art, it’s more than just an album, it’s an experience, it deserves full attention in a dark room in the wee hours. It’s spectacularly different from what I expected from the band, but in every way a pleasant surprise.

If you would like to find out more about Alt-J, you can click on the links below:
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