Not the first thing to be consumed by a commercialising world, British music’s rock and roll identity has in many ways reached the peak of its crisis. Sampling Miley Cyrus, Mercury Award-winning indie rock band alt-J, opened to a hungry 20,000 at the O2 arena with their recent single ‘Hunger of the Pine’. While not the best they’ve brought to the table, its reflective ambience served well to fill the O2 with the promise of something good. Deserting the rock and roll ethos of unseating a large crowd with a big opener was a statement which encapsulates the introspective melancholy that defines the band. They drifted into the contemplation of their more Hamlet-self-reflective ‘Taro’, then into ‘Matilda’, glutting the heartstrings. ‘Left Hand Free’ shook up the calm ambience with a more extroverted rock and roll confidence: “Ain’t shady baby/I’m hot like the prodigal son” opening the audience to the more dialectic re-envisioning of the 70s.
But alt-J never really broke the shackles completely. Those concerned about the state of rock and roll in the modern music industry would find that it was lacking something. Gene Simmons’ controversial lament last year that rock and roll is dead—“Where’s the next Bob Dylan? Where’s the next Beatles?”—somewhat resonated on Sunday. ‘Left Hand Free’ was more like listening to the 70s through your laptop, while ‘Leon’ could have been performed at a higher intensity. alt-J had their heads nodding in agreement with the beat and the crowd clapping along, but it could have been more.
Of course rock and roll isn’t what alt-J are about, but it was a shame that they didn’t take the opportunity to give it more energy. Parts of ‘Fitzpleasure’ certainly had that window too, but judging by alt-J’s presence on stage you wouldn’t have known if the band were dropping into the song’s segments of Afropop-tinged dubstep or its moments of intricate electronica. While this is not to suggest alt-J were poor—indeed, they stayed true to themselves despite the pressure of a sold-out O2—their performance could have had more dynamic. Rock and roll pessimists would have been frustrated by the lack of it. alt-J are leading the indie scene that reigns over popular music culture in Britain, just as Britpop once did; our last flirtation with rock and roll. The Arctic Monkeys, and more recently the Fat White Family, have stood alone in their efforts to regenerate it for many years; the United States is arguably far more successful on that front… For me, Sunday was a sign that British music in general is in serious need of an injection of that rock and rock sentimentality, but that doesn’t seem to be the hunger of the times.
By Scott Clarke