British rockers Wolf Alice upset odds to win Mercury Prize

James PHEBY
Standing beside presenter Annie Mac (2nd L), Joff Oddie, Ellie Rowsell, Theo Ellis and Joel Amey of Wolf Alice collect their award as winners of the 2018 Mercury Music prize

Rockers Wolf Alice defied the odds to win Britain's prestigious Mercury Prize on Thursday for their second album "Visions of a Life", beating off competition from heavyweights Arctic Monkeys and Noel Gallagher.

"This means so much," said visibly-stunned frontwoman Ellie Rowsell as she picked up the £25,000 ($33,000, 28,000 euros) prize, which is presented annually for the best album released by a British or Irish artist, according to a panel of judges.

The 26-year-old later said she "now knows what overwhelmed feels like", having missed out after being nominated in 2015 for their debut album "My Love is Cool."

It is the first time a rock band has won the award in six years, with bookmakers making post-punk singer Nadine Shah and jazz group Sons of Kemet the pre-ceremony favourites.

The north London four-piece join past winners including Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand, PJ Harvey, The xx and grime star Skepta.

The band, whose critically-acclaimed album charted at number two in Britain on its release in September, closed out the show with a celebratory, barefoot performance of album track "Don't Delete the Kisses".

Rowsell and guitarist Joff Oddie got together as a two-piece folk band in 2010, taking a heavier rock turn soon after when they added a bassist and a drummer.

The ceremony, held at the Hammersmith Apollo theatre in London, opened with a powerful performance by Florence + The Machine of "Hunger", the second single from album "High as Hope," before Sons of Kemet brought the crowd to its feet with an electrifying live jam.

Lily Allen announced her return to the spotlight with a moving rendition "Apples" from her raw and confessional album "No Shame".

- Political edge -

The black-clad Shah then brought a dark intensity to the evening with her live performance of "Out the Way", staring wide-eyed at the star-studded audience throughout the song, which ended with her on the verge of tears.

Shah, whose father moved to Britain from Pakistan, mined her personal experiences on album "Holiday Destination" to explore the themes of xenophobia and immigration, with one track closing with a chant recorded at a pro-refugee rally.

"I'm so glad that that's on there," she told the BBC. "I wanted to be very direct and I wanted people to be very aware of the context of the album."

Continuing in the political vein, Sons of Kemet bagged the shortlist's usual spot for a jazz act with their anti-monarchy album "Your Queen Is a Reptile".

Sheffield rockers Arctic Monkeys were aiming to become only the second artist to win the award twice, but missed out with their sixth studio album "Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino".

The band's departure to a more laid back, piano-driven sound, divided critics and some fans, but the record became their sixth consecutive number-one debut in Britain, and the country's fastest-selling vinyl record in 25 years.

Indie rockers Everything Everything and impromptu collective Everything Is Recorded, put together by producer Richard Russell, were also nominated, both performing live.

A pair of debut albums were up for the big prize: "Novelist Guy" by grime act Novelist and "Lost and Found" by R and B artist Jorja Smith.

"This year... celebrates albums by musicians at all stages of their careers, but with a shared belief in the importance of music for navigating life's challenges -- whether personal or political, falling in or out of love, growing up or looking back, angry or ecstatic," the jury said.

"The music here is funny and inspiring, smart and moving," it added.

Former Oasis guitarist Gallagher was among the audience, with his High Flying Birds project nominated for "Who Built the Moon?," but he ultimately went home empty handed, although promised he would be partying "until Saturday" as he made his way into the venue.