Music Review

Alt-J’s moody rock needs growth spurt

British buzz band Alt-J sold out two shows this weekend at the Paradise, including this one on Saturday.
British buzz band Alt-J sold out two shows this weekend at the Paradise, including this one on Saturday.

Something is happening with Alt-J. Even before this past weekend’s two sold-out shows at the Paradise kicked off its current tour, the British four-piece announced a September show at the Bank of America Pavilion. Perhaps that explains the tense giddiness of Saturday’s packed house: the spectacle of seeing a band that had outgrown the venue before it even played there.

First, though, that band’s going to have to come up with a concert that lasts longer than 50 minutes, including encores. It’s not clear whether Alt-J (whose name is actually the Greek letter delta; don’t ask) is up to the task. The band seemed to say everything it needed to say in the time allotted.

And said it all more than once. Alt-J shared a mood with “Turn on the Bright Lights”-era Interpol, as well as a disinterest in doing anything that deviated from that mood. But while Interpol’s Paul Banks sang with inscrutable fervency, Joe Newman’s vocals were all low mutterings, which he’d accompany with appropriately minimalist swaying. During “Fitzpleasure,” he sang a rising “ohhh. . .” while slowly pointing upward, summoning the audience to join in and letting them crest with the moment in his place while he stepped back and let the dirty distortion of his guitar speak for him instead.


The distortion was a rarity, dropped into a small handful of songs purely as punctuation. Mostly, delicately picked guitar arpeggios were interwoven with one another, Thom Green’s drums ticked along like a watch with a loose cog and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton and guitarist Gwil Sainsbury joined Newman to create soft, monastic vocal harmonies. Alt-J took a modular approach to its arrangements, dropping one or the other of those components in and out of its material at any given moment.

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It generated variety within individual songs but made the entire set list sound like repetitions of the same formula, though “Ms” had its fluid, underwater movement and “Dissolve Me” its sublimated passion. Newman and Unger-Hamilton started the encore by playing “Hand-Made” alone, as if it were the dropout section of one of their other songs expanded to full length. It breathed in a way the others didn’t, and it worked fine without any shifting pieces.

With four keyboards at its disposal, opening act Hundred Waters combined stacked layers of smooth electronic dislocation with live drums and swelling surges of vocals. It was effective mood-creation, but a little went a long way.

Marc Hirsh can be reached at ** or on Twitter @spacecitymarc