Alt-J: Brighton Centre

“I’M A FEMALE rebel,” insists Miley Cyrus’s disembodied voice, piercing the opening song of Alt-J’s show. Stripped of twerking and tongue associations, the sampled line floats in and out, a forlorn ghost in the band’s krautrock-cum-folk machine.

Alt-J themselves are robotic silhouettes behind their instruments, backlit in strident red and white – a trio of Dr Frankensteins who have somehow turned Cyrus’s metallic chirp into something chilling. If any band are capable of creating this kind of cognitive dissonance, it’s these Mercury-winning nerdrockers, whose comeback tour is deservedly playing to full houses.    

Now on their second album, This is All Yours – “It was out yesterday, which is very exciting for us, and quite grownup,” is keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton’s self-effacing plug – Alt-J are a good deal slicker than when the Guardian reviewed them in a Soho basement in 2012. The lighting expensively recreates the feel of a laser-strafed interrogation cell, almost obscuring the band, whose motionlessness makes Kraftwerk seem like conga dancers. The sound system crisply conveys every popping consonant of their Fleet Foxes-esque harmonies. But the group’s essence hasn’t changed much.

The three musicians, augmented by a tour bassist, may seem on the surface to be dispassionate about their intricate, multi-textured songs, and singer Joe Newman hasn’t been beaten with the charisma stick, but a half-submerged fierceness drives them. It’s all over the improbably sexy funk of new track ‘Left Hand Free’ and underpins Newman’s falsetto hoots in ‘Bloodflood Pt II’. And if their math-rock deconstruction of Bill Withers’ ‘Lovely Day’ initially seems as bloodless as skimmed milk, it’s not: Newman sings this encore song with the quiet vengeance of the guy who’s been overlooked his whole life.

© Caroline SullivanThe Guardian, 24 September 2014

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