Nobody has ever been able to pin alt-J down. It’s been that way from the very beginning when tracks crafted in student halls merged into a cohesive, yet vibrantly unique debut album. When they scooped the Mercury Prize, some people called them nerds, some were simply dumbfounded, but alt-J knew what they were doing. Instead of bowing to expectations and attempting to play to a newfound crowd, they delved deeper into experimentation with their second album ‘This Is All Yours’. With a click of time, they were headlining festivals across the globe, a grandstand act with a platform. This wasn’t meant to happen.
Coming to grips with what comes next and how to be that band should have been their next move, but instead, with ‘Relaxer’, they came back with a record that proudly puffs its chest out and blooms every brighter than ever before. A second night headlining The O2, more festival headline slots, even greater acclaim and adoration. This wasn’t meant to happen. Through that whole journey, alt-J have been discovering and thriving with who they are as a band, no longer having question marks put after their name but not becoming short-hand for a band creating their own path. With the past 18 months signalling their most commanding and confident to date, it comes down to tonight at the Royal Albert Hall – gracing its prestigious stage not as outsiders, but as an act standing away from the competition. It’s not so much they reached to play the Royal Albert Hall, but the Royal Albert Hall reached to have them. It results in what can only be described as a magical evening from a band crafting their own spells.
That end of tour freedom is there in abundance. The choreographed lights and stunning multimedia show that plays out makes the Royal Albert Hall feels like the largest cinema in the country. A panoramic show that spans across their career – from ‘Something Good’ to the swelling hymns of ‘Pleader’; from the choir-like calls of ‘3WW’ to ‘Tesselate’ and back through to ‘Every Other Freckle’. It’s a masterclass in showing their breadth and evolution. The setting they find themselves adds a whole new level, a surround sound like approach where chiming edges and kicks move in from the back of the hall, the sides and then from the front – perfectly displayed with the chant-like hypnosis of ‘Hunger Of The Pine’. While they’ve played bigger stages, it feels like the Royal Albert Hall finally gives alt-J the chance to play around with it all, and put on the sort of show that they’ve been meaning to display for years.
Then again, this is a band who’ve made music throughout their career from the sound of pushing against convention and genre. Take their latest remix album ‘Reduxer’, laying a groundwork for reinterpretations of ‘Relaxer’ with hip-hop and seething electronica. Tonight it works on a grand scale, flashes of Danny Brown and Pusha T popping on stage screens to ‘Deadcrush’ and ‘In Cold Blood’ respectively pinpoint their influence – while a mid-set version of ‘Adeline’ grows into a soaring emotional standout (with added special guest appearances from Paigey Cakey and Hex). With scattered screens lining the backdrop, everything entwines in one of the most impressive stage shows of the year. A crowd in awe, they light up for a crooning rendition of ‘Matilda’ the perfect summary for a show full of warmth and artistic flair.
That’s not to say things don’t get a bit loose as they ring into the encore. ‘Fitzpleasure’ has the sold-out hall on its feet and throws away any notion that alt-J can’t be a band engulfing these huge stages because of how left-field things may get. Arms are raised, thousands pour their lungs out to ‘Left Hand Free’ and closer ‘Breezeblocks’ and the evidence is there. Yes, on paper this should never have happened – but the fact it’s happening and feeling like nothing else in music at the moment makes it that more vital.
For now, alt-J can take a rest and look to what comes next. On tonight’s evidence, we’re still going to be trying to pin them down for decades and decades to come.
Words: Jamie Muir