In the interest of full disclosure, I wasn’t meant to be at this gig tonight. Had circumstances not conspired against me, I would have been sitting in the fifth row of Paul McCartney in Melbourne, seeing a former Beatle, a living legend and a giant in the world of popular music and culture. Instead I am here at the AEC Theatre to see Alt-J, so that wasn’t a terrific start to the night for me. There is a healthy crowd present and they are all very excited to see the indie trio from Leeds in the UK, who in just five short years have become hugely popular.
First up are atmospheric all-female indie types Warpaint. I love Warpaint live, and have been fortunate to have seen them a few times already. Their sound is a little hard to explain. It’s a bit like swimming in warm honey, but sometimes dancing to dark subversive disco beats like you might hear on a Public Image Limited record. The lighting was as dark as their sound, atmospheric and throwing lots of shadows.
It’s a kind of brief eight song set, covering their three albums. Kicking off with Heads Up from last year’s album of the same name. Elephants was on their debut ep in 2008. So Good (Heads Up) is smashing and Emily Kokal’s voice is amazing. Jenny Lee Lindberg’s bass is thunderous and big on groove. Then it’s Undertow, Love Is To Die, Intro before the syncopated death disco rhythms of New Song and Disco//Very. They were marvellous. After a break the stage has been reset with walls of lighting frames, that seem to be twenty metres high. There is a wall at each end of the stage and two others separating the three members of the band. I say three, but really there are four members of Alt-J. There are the three musicians on stage, Joe Newman (guitar / vocals), Thom Sonny Green (drums) and Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards/vocals) and then there is a mystery person, who I’m going to call Mr (or Ms) Light Factory. Because without a shadow of a doubt, the lighting is the star of Alt-J’s show.
The members of the band are pretty static, in that they get in position and that is where they stay, often hard to see in the maelstrom of snazzy whizz bang effects from Mr Light Factory. Starting off with subtle crawling white LED’s, making their way up those frames, it looks great and as the set moves along more lights and colours and patterns are added. It is often dazzling and impressive, but like a fireworks display that goes for too long, it seemed to lose impact for me by the end of the show. I found myself straining to see a musician at a concert, and when I could there wasn’t anything going on. I understand not all bands are leaping around the stage, but it was a bit more like a recital than a gig, albeit a recital with a lot more lights.
Opening with 3WW from this years Relaxer CD, the crowd were loving Alt-J from the very first note. They were responsive and enthusiastic for every single song. Singing along, dancing, faces beaming. They played all the songs people wanted to hear, singles like Something Good, Matilda, Hunger of the Pine, Bloodflow and Fitzpleasure, each excitedly welcomed. I really like the track The Ghost of John Hurt from their This Is All Yours album from 2014, which was a highlight for me. They have been described as ‘Folktronica’ and there are moments when you could be forgiven for wondering whether they were aiming for Depeche Mode or Mumford & Sons. The set closer Pleader has a refrain of How green was my valley over thumping drums and keyboards, which illustrates this point. The three song encore started with Intro / An Awesome Wave combining two tracks from the first and second albums. Left Hand Free followed and lead into the biggest song of the evening in their massive Indie hit Breezeblocks. It is one of those songs that leaps out at you, sounds great on radio, you can sing along to it, even do some awkward indie dancing to it. For me it is the best song of the night.
The sound mix was immaculate and they are all exceptional musicians, but ultimately everything was a little…I don’t know…it certainly wasn’t ‘bad’, but perhaps for me (and especially on this McCartney-less evening) Alt-J were just a bit beige. The majority of the songs had a particular sound, style and beat from which there was little deviation. A lot of people I talked to were completely blown away by both the band and Mr/Ms Light Factory. I have seen Kraftwerk a number of times, a band that consists of four identically dressed expressionless men, who all stand stock still in front of computer controllers for two hours like cardboard cut-outs, who nonetheless manage to put on an exhilarating rollercoaster of a concert, with their use of lights, screens, animations and projections. So it can be done, and it seems that for everybody else at the AEC Theatre this evening it was.
Review by Ian Bell