It was a full house Thursday night at The Shrine Auditorium for the second of alt-J’s two-show engagement. Newcomer Bishop Briggs opened and treated the audience to a decidedly electro set, with her forceful and hearty vocals carrying the somewhat less inspired instrumentation. Bouncing about on the stage, her energy was admirable and her hit “River” had many a fan nodding along.
Alt-J’s stage set-up stole the show, an ethereal and shimmering amalgamation of backdrop lights and suspended vertical bars, separating the three musicians from one another into segmented boxes, perforated by the flickering vertical bars. When the lights turned to the green spectrum, the entire scenario looked positively otherworldly–the trio appearing to have been transported to The Emerald City in Wizard of Oz, each separated in his own small cube set-up with his instrument.
Magical and offbeat is an accurate way to sum up the range of mish-mash styles alt-J employs on their newest album, Relaxer. Take the tune they opened with– “3WW” — it begins with softly plucked guitar riff evoking a middle-eastern vibe – sounding like an Arabian Oud. The guitar riff loops for a solid two minutes backed by low percussion, the two sounds forming a woozy lullaby of sorts before opening up into a near archaic chant with equally pastoral lyrics telling of wayward lads, country fields and burning wood. One minute they have you thinking this is a Arabian lullaby, the next you feel as if the trio might be more at home belting out the lyrics atop the Cliffs of Moher.
Though the newest album jumps about quite a bit stylistically (Relaxer contains a zen-meets-folky cover of The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” yet also showcases “Hit Me Like That Snare” which blends dark lyrics with a surf/grunge-rock guitar lick), the group has historically zig-zagged drastically within a song’s structure. Take “Something Good” off their 2014 album, An Awesome Wave. The song is a journey — first a sparse drum intro, next a dramatic piano build-up before a feel-good release into the expansive and rhythmic chorus. Just as you get into your dance groove for the chorus, they switch it up again, pulling you back like a wave’s undertow with that same sparse and discordant piano…only to rip it wide open and drop back into that dance-able chorus you’ve been jones-ing for since the first time you heard it. It’s a musical rollercoaster of emotions.
That rollercoaster was one the crowd was fully embracing. The Shrine seats a cool 6,300 and the balcony and ground floor were filled with all ages dancing and moving with wild abandon. Even the furthest possible seats back housed some enthusiastic individuals who seemed to be enjoying the tunes immensely, not even facing the stage but instead dancing about in whatever direction they pleased.
Although the assumption might have been for alt-J to play more heavily into their new material, considering the fact that Relaxer was only released a few months ago, their set list achieved an almost perfectly even split across their three albums for the set-list, favoring songs off their first album just slightly.
Celtic chants, sensual electronic backing, intriguing percussion and melodic patterns — you have to hand it to these guys. They’ve managed to create an incredibly unique sound in a time when pretty much everything has already been done. Although…a bit of movement on-stage might have been nice…the three did little to no moving from their individual boxed areas on stage the entire time, stoically delivering their collaborative tunes while literally segmented off from one another. But perhaps overt entertaining just doesn’t concern them– they let the music do the talking.