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What Alt-J winning the Mercury Prize says about the indie music scene

Posted at 12:00 pm, November 2, 2012 in Music & Nightlife

Alt-JCongratulations to Alt-J, the Leeds-via-Cambridge four-piece who’ve scooped the Mercury Prize for their album ‘An Awesome Wave’. It seemed to be a transitional year for the UK’s most credible album award, one in which the Prize came under criticism for the heavy amount of ‘beigewave’ boring singer-songwriter material on its shortlist (yes, Ben Howard, we mean you), especially considering how it largely overlooked electronic music – a genre that the UK dominated in 2012.

Even so, Alt-J are not unworthy winners. Their debut record is a mixture of folky harmonies and guitar picking rhythms, electronic beats, idiosyncratic vocals and lyrics about matadors, penetrative sex and some dame called Matilda. It’s a beguiling strange and entrancingly beautiful album. It might not be an epic, but it is a unique and pleasurable lesson. ’An Awesome Wave’s success also speaks volumes about the current state of the music industry and, in particular, the indie band scene. Here’s what we now know.

Weird is the new black. 
Now, finally, we’ve got over the idea that indie-rock bands wearing leather jackets, sweating, dating models and taking so many drugs that their centre of gravity becomes a distant memory is just NOT COOL. Alt-J, in contrast, do a nice line in scarves (practical) and spend their free time chucking a half-full bottle of water around as part of an elaborate catching game they call ‘throwy’. Now that’s rock ’n’ roll.

Triangles are the new, er… whatever the last popular shape was
‘Triangles are my favourite shape,’ croons Joe Newman on ‘Tessellate’. He’s not alone. It seems like every dreamy, indie-pop group is in thrall to three-sided geometrical figures these days. And yet, despite this, we’ve yet to come across a band called The Triangles. If you’re out there, get in touch – stardom awaits.

The road from basement to big venues is shorter than ever
It’s a common grievance in the music industry that bands can’t make a dime from album sales any more (unless you’re the sort of band that appeals to people who think a torrent is something that makes your gutters overflow). This is, of course, true, but for all its sins the internet has made it possible for bands to grow their fanbases incredibly quickly. Alt-J play Camden’s Electric Ballroom on Nov 5, but they’ve already got a Brixton Academy date for sale in May next year. Blink, and that will be sold out as well. What’s next – the O2?

Forget music college, get yourself to art school
The presence of The Maccabees, Django Django and Alt-J on the Prize shortlist suggests that arty indie is well and truly in. It was back in 2004 that Franz Ferdinand scooped the prize and made a big thing out of art-rock. Alt-J’s style is a few notches less knowingly pretentious and showy, but it has all the same intelligence and feeling for mood as Franz showed was possible.

The new wave of guitar music hasn’t arrived yet
For those people who have been calling Alt-J the ‘new Radiohead’ we say sorry, no. Let’s not get too excited. ‘An Awesome Wave’ is good, but it’s no ‘OK Computer’. With the exception of Joe Newman’s vocals – which make him sound like an erudite, anthropomorphised toad – there’s not a lot here that’s entirely new or that we haven’t heard before. Guitars aren’t dead, but this band aren’t the ones to resurrect them. Jonny Ensall

To Joe Newman, Gus Unger-Hamilton, Thom Green and Gwil Sainsbury we say very well done. Now don’t start wearing leather jackets and dating models.  Read our interview with Alt-J.

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