Missed Releases: ∆ – “An Awesome Wave”

Nicky Hug

UK band ∆ (pronounced Alt-J) released their debut album An Awesome Wave in early 2012. I completely missed it. Even when the band won the Mercury Prize, I still had yet to hear of them. Over the course of the year, I heard their name thrown around every once in a while, but for the most part I ignored them, perhaps slightly intentionally.

 

Why ignore a band that is making waves (especially Awesome ones)? Well, upon the release of their album, comparisons to Radiohead began being thrown around. And when I say comparisons, I mean people said that ∆ was going to be “the next Radiohead.” This, combined with the Pitchfork rating of their album (around a 4 out of 10), turned me off. Now, I can’t stand Pitchfork for the most part, but I do generally agree with their ratings. So when I started seeing ∆ near the top of a few year-end lists, I decided it was time to actually give the band a chance instead of writing them off.

 

With An Awesome Wave, ∆ have created an extremely appealing but eclectic and diverse album. I can’t for the life of me pin-down the direct influences or genre of the band, which only makes the band so much more interesting. The lead singer’s voice drifts in and out of songs, uttering almost inaudible (and most of the time inane) phrases or crooning over the instruments. The music itself is a slight mix between electronic-sounding beats with acoustic guitars creating extremely melodic and driven songs. Standouts upon first listen were definitely “Tessellate” and “Breezeblocks.” However, ∆ really don’t go out of their way to present one coherent style, every song changes a bit and has its own style and rhythm. Some are synth-driven, some guitar, some lyric. What strikes me most about this album I think, is ∆’s ability to make weird-sounding songs work. By work, I mean they are catchy, almost radio-ready songs. On one hand, I can hear a lot of these songs on the radio, and at the same time I can’t.

 

As for the Radiohead comparison, I think I understand the connections. They are both British, they both have interesting sounds and seem to experiment with the boundaries of marketable songs (I’m thinking of Kid A era Radiohead), they both have lead singers who have an interesting (to say the least) style of singing. However, I would not even go close to calling ∆ the new Radiohead. To be honest I’m not even sure what that is supposed to mean.

 

Though there are a few missteps, with An Awesome Wave, ∆ have created a wonderful and layered album. Thus, after listening I had to go back to the Pitchfork review and figure out where they felt ∆ went wrong. Apparently, in some interviews earlier in the year, ∆ said that “Part of the reason [the album] is accessible is because we don’t try to go out of the box or be innovative. We just try to play music we like to hear.” This – and other reasons such as a lack of innovation, feeling of tentativeness, being messy and overstuffed – was cited as a negative in regards to the album. However, for me, this is what is so strong about the album. It is four friends playing music that they want to hear. Isn’t that what an artist should play? Artists that set out for innovation often fall short, but artists that play from the heart and try to make music they would want to listen to often create the best new music.

An Awesome Wave is by no means a perfect album, but it is a good album, even a great album. It is fun and interesting to listen to, it can keep the listeners attention with new layers of sound but also suffers from being a bit repetitive. ∆ is not the new Radiohead, but they are a fantastic new band and I am very excited to see what they do with the momentum from this album.

 

Rating: 3.5 / 5

 

Key Tracks: Tessellate, Breezeblocks, Bloodflood

 

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