Two years ago, 4 guys from Cambridge, England released a debut album that immediately made waves in the music world. It seemed like a brand new sound had been created; yet that was merely an accident. This was music that came from the heart, meticulously written and edited to be perfect, but in their own sense of the word; not by definition of an at-times boring and predictable music industry.
In 2007 Joe Newman, Thom Green, Gus Unger-Hamilton, and Gwil Sainsbury met at Leeds University in northern England. They were all studying art except for Gus, who studied English. Initially, they started creating music in their dorm rooms using GarageBand, but after graduating they all moved down to Cambridge to write and rehearse in a better space.
Initially they went by the name Daljit Dhaliwal, who was a newsreader on British television. But due to the tough spelling and pronunciation, they switched their name to Films. Then they were forced to change names again when they discovered that there was already an American band called The Films. When it came down to finalizing a band name they chose the name ∆ (pronounced alt-J because the delta symbol is created when you hold down the alt key and press J on a Mac computer). The group landed on this name because it represents change in mathematical equations and the band was going through a major turning point in their lives at the time.
Once the name issue was settled, they released their debut album An Awesome Wave (in 2012) and right away it started to turn heads. There was a new indie rock, electro-pop, folktronica (or whatever you want to call it) band out there, and they were the real deal. An Awesome Wave had it all; great writing, captivating layered sounds, and a unique track listing (including an intro and 3 interludes). The album went on to win the 2012 British Barclaycard Mercury Prize, which is awarded annually to the best album in the UK and Ireland.
Following the album release, they came over to the United States for a tour in 2013 that included stops at Bonnaroo, Coachella, Sasquatch! and Lollapalooza. Their following grew tremendously over the summer of 2013. I was lucky enough to catch them twice: once at Bonnaroo and again at Lollapalooza. At Bonnaroo I picked their show at random, but at Lollapalooza they were one of my top acts to see. It seemed that I was not the only one to follow that trend and at Lollapalooza the crowd was one of the biggest I saw all weekend. By the end of the summer, ∆ were one of the most sought after acts to see live.
Following the sudden success, anticipation began to build for a sophomore album. Some hopes were a bit deterred this past January when Gwil left the band. He wasn’t a fan of the industry he was working in and decided to quit (but he still remains good friends with his former band mates). However any doubts were resolved this past June, when it was announced This is All Yours was going to be released in September 2014.
After releasing 3 singles (“Hunger of the Pine”, “Left Hand Free”, and “Every other Freckle”) over the summer, This is all Yours is finally on shelves in record stores. ∆ had a lot of pressure on them to create an album that was just as much theirs as it was something completely different. An Awesome Wave was great because it was something new and unique. For This is all Yours to succeed, the same would have to be done.
Just like the first album, after my initial listen I said to myself, “What have I just listened to? I’m not used to this.” But on the second round through I was anticipating every track, eager to hear it all again. It is so wonderfully refreshing and original that I didn’t, and couldn’t, expect it at first. But once I knew it existed, I loved it. That’s what ∆ does; they create a new space to excel in.
Similar themes resound throughout both albums. A major one revolves around the Southampton common (referred to as c-o-double-m-o-n in numerous songs) and a story of being mugged there by gangs that have ruled the area. They have also written two songs influenced by films now; “Matilda” is about the young girl from Leon: The Professional and “The Gospel of John Hurt” was inspired by Hurt’s death scene in Alien.
Major differences lie in the layering of sounds and melodies that Newman and Unger-Hamilton sing over. An Awesome Wave had more emphasis on percussion and rhythm and songs followed a more predictable path. In This is all Yours there is less structure created by the drums and instead a more creative flow. Songs tend to grow as they go on, teasing the listener with soft sounds initially, but ending with some brilliant and satisfying measures.
In a predictable music industry, ∆ break the norm. To the band members it seems regular; they’re creating something they love and giving it to the world. But to the average listener it is an unexpected breath of fresh air. The vocals, layered sounds, and album construction are as unique as their name and unheard of. But once you listen to ∆, it’s hard to get enough of them. Make sure to give them a good listen and, if you get a chance, go see them live; you do not want to miss out.
By Ben Lowden