Indie favourites alt-J clearly love Australia as much as Aussies love the band. This short promo tour ahead of summer festival appearances later this year is their fourth trip Down Under, landing almost two years to the day since their first Aussie gig.
It’s also their first tour since parting ways with founding member Gwil Sainsbury, and the first off the back of sophomore album This Is All Yours. It’s all the more disappointing, then, that tonight’s show at Melbourne’s The Forum loses the plot at fairly crucial moments, namely when showcasing new material.
The band’s on-stage presence is more static than dynamic, each mainstay member — vocalist/guitarist Joe Newman, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, and Thom Sonny Green on drums — clad in black tops and positioned onstage with equal billing. Leading with the Miley Cyrus-sampling single Hunger of the Pine, the song is crisper and more forthright than the snoozy version on record.
Fitzpleasure showcases Green’s metronomic execution, especially in its bombastic ending. Matilda and later Bloodflood puts the drummer front and centre again, his precise, thunderous pounding providing much of the night’s momentum. Something Good is aptly titled, with twinkling synths floating over lyrics which the audience complete.
It’s a testament to the band that the older tracks in the first half of the set live and breathe much better in bigger venues than more intimate ones. Compared to their first Melbourne show at the 300-capacity Ding Dong, the Forum allows the music to expand – but only if the music is compelling enough to do so.
A cheeky Left Hand Free scrounges up alongside the first half of the set, the Black Keys-lite track revealing some of the inconsistency to follow. It sticks out like a sore thumb, but still drives things forward.
Photos: alt-J, Grace – Melbourne, Forum Theatre 06/10/14 / Photos by Nikki Williams
alt-J - Melbourne, Forum Theatre 06/10/14 - Music Feeds
It’s with the glammy Bloodflood Pt 2, a new album track, that the gig begins to falter, failing to fill the Forum with its swirling energy. Every Other Freckle never hits the highs it promises. Warm Foothills is too level, too flat, especially when Newman’s baritone overpowers the delicate instrumentation.
Sandwiched alongside newer tunes, older favourites also lose some of their bite. Not even stellar versions of Ripe & Ruin and the geometric Tesselate can shake the feeling that something’s amiss. Taro radiates but lacks anything gripping, despite the audience belting out the “ooo-ooo-OOO-OOO”s to Unger-Hamilton’s praise that we’re “really good shriekers”.
Luckily, The Gospel of John Hurt bares its teeth and just manages to recapture the force from the start of the show right before the encore, building into a blinding, blown out, distorted climax.
The encore gave us the release we were looking for. A cover of Bill Withers’ Lovely Day is pulled along by whirring keys before Nara proves the highlight of the new material on offer. The superior Breezeblocks caps things off, the winding climax of “please don’t go, please don’t go / I love you so, I love you so” a mutually assured relationship between band and audience, and the room was once again full of energy.
Whether Sainsbury’s absence is being felt more keenly than anticipated is debatable. What’s undeniable though is the relative unfamiliarity of both band and audience to This Is All Yours. The newer, more contemplative tracks don’t always play nicely with the sounds established on An Awesome Wave.
That’s not to say it’s a bad show, far from it. It’s just patchy. Hopefully what we’re witnessing is a band finding their feet again, polishing their chops and tinkering with their new format. There’s a good couple of months, and more than a few shows, between now and their next Australian visit at the end of the year. No doubt they’ll find their groove again.
Alt-J’s brief Australian visit wraps up on Tuesday at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre – details here.