Alt J left us hungering for more than just the pine20th February 2015
When the lights drop on London’s O2 Arena there’s a beat of shouts in the darkness, until a familiar pulsing note cuts through the air, accompanied with red flashing lights. It’s almost tense, the suspense hanging in the air as ‘Hunger of the Pine’ heralds the arrival of Alt-J. It’s a well-pitched opening, the longing in the song much more visceral live. It’s the opening to a polished, sophisticated show that leaves the audience under no doubt as to the talents of the band.
Alt-J’s music is better live. The thudding bass and delicate vocal harmonies soar through the air. The synths are harsher, the cacophony of keyboards and jangling synthetic percussion adding to a much more immersive experience of the music; technically, they’re brilliant live, the harmonies of ‘Something Good’ rendered perfectly and with more punch. Midway through ‘Fitzpleasure’, a dirty romp of a song, the crowd seems to move as if the beat were their collective heartbeat. They don’t need to gild the lily: the lovely melody of ‘Warm Foothills’ flutters, freed, through the arena, while ‘Every Other Freckle’ gets a filthy kick to it, feeling like the kind of song that could devour you alive. It’s a testament to the quality of the gig that the greenlit ditzy euphoria of ‘Dissolve Me’ is almost a low point.
They’ve also got a phenomenal presence. ‘Tessellate’ cues a sea of triangle hand symbols in the air, moving in some quasi-circadian rhythm to the syncopated beat, while it barely takes a second of Joe holding his hand in the air during ‘Matilda’ to get a chorus line of copycats. Midway through the gig I realise what it is that the four black clad men in a line, rarely moving, remind me of: Kraftwerk in their heyday. And it’s a similar effect they have on the crowd: they barely have to move from their instruments to have the hands of the audience in the air, singing their hearts out. Even aside from the considerable stage presence, they come across as likeable – Joe steps forward at one point, smiling at the crowd like a kid on Christmas, a gesture I can only describe as charming, while Gus is constantly thanking the crowd from behind his keyboard. This is a band comfortable in their own skins, able to command an audience.
But moving on from the solid live performance, what really marks out this gig is its transcendence. When I saw Alt-J live in 2013, I made a similar claim, but nothing compares to this. From the moment they take the stage, the crowd is plunged into a surround-sound experience of the music: the performance of ‘Intro’ from An Awesome Wave could be a moment of religious conversion, judging on the response it garners. The flashing lights and simple staging add to the assault of the music upon your consciousness: ‘The Ballad of John Hurt’ seems to be resonating in some deep cranial niche and I find myself wondering why on earth it wasn’t a single. ‘Breezeblocks’, the final song of the night, is predictably well-received, the heartfelt cry of ‘please don’t go, I love you so’ both lyric and plea from a crowd desperate for the night not to end.
And as Gus and Joe stand in twin spotlights during ‘Interlude 1: The Ripe and Ruin’, it’s not hard to imagine the voices of the crowd as supplicants, arms aloft to some holy melody. And when the lights come up over the crowd in ‘Every Other Freckle’, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of religious experience.
Sure, it’s not the most innovative of performances, but Alt-J do what they’re best at: creating an immersive atmosphere of music that allows you to realise just how good a band they are.