There are two key words to describe Alt-J’s show at the O2 tonight. The first is ‘staccato’. The timing on display during their 90-minute set is stunning – Alt-J’s music is precise and mathematical, and the trio deliver every dotted rhythm and elided note with unerring accuracy. It’s like being inside a robot’s brain, all fizzing electricity and thudding bass and juddering guitar lines, each – note – in – – – its place.
The second is ‘light’. And when I say ‘light’, I mean a cataclysmic lightning storm, or perhaps the surface of the sun. Alt-J (or ∆) have built their brand on enigma, and tonight they let the stage set do the flashy stuff while they themselves stand stock still, obscured by darkness. It’s reminiscent of Kraftwerk’s static keyboard schtick, if Kraftwerk were backed by an Imperial Destroyer.
The three band members are divided from each other by strobe grids, each standing in his own little corridor of light. During opening number 3WW, white beams run along the grids, wiping up and down in time with the jittery riff. It’s Tron-does-arena-rock, all clinical, surgical blazing lines, like watching a circuit board play the keys.
Then, as the chirpy tom-toms of Something Good blap out, the rigging above the stage suddenly bursts into life – three central columns of cascading strobes, a mobile triangle adorned with spotlights, hundreds of search beams and fog machines, a flickering video bank behind the risers and, on either side, triple slit screens, displaying dystopian versions of the band, like an evil Alice’s looking-glass. To keep on with the Star Wars imagery, it’s like all Coruscant condensed onto a single stage. I mean this thing is bright.
As if that wasn’t enough, halfway through the show the lights suddenly cut and out of the blackness three green laser columns shoot up from the stage to the far-distant ceiling, ensconcing each member of the band like tractor beams. As they begin to play, the stage is criss-crossed with more flickering lasers, red and blue this time, and the O2 becomes a cathedral of light, like a turbo-charged Sagrada Familia.
I’ve seen a lot of incredible sets – regular viewers may remember that our last review featured KISS, who also do a good line in spectacle – but I’d go so far as to say that this is the best use of staging I’ve ever seen. It’s got something of the Pink Floyd about it – the apocalyptic light show complements Alt-J’s cinematic, rather ‘thinky’ music, transforming it into an overwhelming optical-aural blast.
The band aren’t entirely distant – Gus Unger-Hamilton (can we just take a minute for that name?) pops beyond the fourth wall for a moment to say hello to us and thank us for coming, and he does sound jolly excited by the whole situation. Even better, during the encore Joe Newman manages to screw up the intro to Left Hand Free, which in the midst of all this imposing perfection makes for a rather endearing moment of humanity. The band chuckle and start the song again, and no-one minds.
What’s more impressive, though, is that for a band which makes the pop equivalent of a Benjamin Britten symphony, they sure can get the audience up and dancing. I’ve written before about how I dislike the O2 for its impersonal/corporate feel, but by the time the show climaxes with the bump’n’grind of Fitzpleasure, just about everybody in the building is grooving, even in the nosebleed section.
Uncategorisable, uncompromising, mysterious and moody – this is Alt-J. But tonight they were also powerful, musical and visually astounding. They’ll be touring smaller seaside venues later this year – go and experience it.
Alt-J are touring coastal England in September 2017 – full details can be found at http://altjband.com/