Do it right, and listening to alt-J can be a glorious experience. Winning The Mercury Prize is about as good as it gets if you’re looking for an industry mark of approval.
While it might not be the kind of thing you stick on in the flat kitchen during pre-drinks, the album has carved out its very own time and place for listening.
Escape for a walk around the Broad, headphones in tow, for example, and their intricately crafted electro-folk and feather-fragile vocal harmonies will steal you away from reality for 44 exquisite minutes.
Delivering this experience live, however, was never going to be plain sailing. Having seen them on a previous encounter, it was clear that alt-J live experience was still very much a fledgling project. Some of the distinctive guitar hooks, so addictive when heard at home, seemed to go awry at times, while the multi-layered chorus from single “Breezeblocks” also seemed out of kilter.
The band, it seemed, was falling foul of their own considerable ambition. Speaking in an interview beforehand, quietly spoken singer Joe Newman admitted the transfer from studio to stage was proving difficult; “we’re trying to sound like the album really, and that’s taking some time … but we’re getting there, and we’re enjoying it”.
The challenge was set then – could alt-J bring their album to life in Norwich? The answer; a resounding ‘nearly’.
After support from the initially enjoyable but ultimately repetitive Stealing Sheep, alt-J emerge from the wings and launch straight into the customary opener “Intro”.
So far, so good – swaying synths and a needle sharp guitars underpin Thom Green’s vigorous drumbeats, while Joe Newman’s distinctive vocals play over the top, but it’s the leisurely, piano driven “Tesselate” that really takes it up a notch. Newman’s terrific vocals was really at its awe-inspiring best here, his ethereal, falsetto trill giving direction to the track’s tuneful meander.
Midway through the set, Newman announces that they will now play a mash-up Dr Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” and Kylie Minogue’s “Slow”. Raised eyebrows are widespread at first, but these are soon dispelled, because (against all musical logic) the track works a treat, adding a playfulness that was maybe lacking in previous gigs.
Alt-J quickly rattle through “Fitzpleasure” and “Breezeblocks”, but to tell the truth these are a disappointing. The thundering bass effect of the former, so forceful on the album, seems muted and underwhelming, and “Breezeblocks” still seems frustratingly out of time.
Encore track “Taro”, a track the crowd seem very much up for, is again soured by a sound issues. It’s not clear whether the fault lay with the band or the venue – but in reality the average punter doesn’t give a toss.
It seems when taken outside the studio, Alt-J still aren’t hitting the heights they should.