Alt-J’s experimentation takes no breaks on “Relaxer”
By Clark Gudas
In two albums, Alt-J has risen to household name status among alternative rock fans. Originating in Leeds, England in 2007, the band has become well known for driving synth bass, nasally falsetto vocals and unpredictable song structure. Never one for conventions, the band teased it’s third release, “Relaxer,” with binary code and images from a 1998 video game called “LSD.”
In many of the same unconventional ways, “Relaxer” strives to create eclectic new angles while still presenting the hallmarks for which Alt-J is known.
The record starts with its first single, “3WW.” Joe Newman’s wistful acoustic guitar work is paralleled in romantic depth by Gus Unger-Hamilton’s vocals as he sings, “I just want to love you in my own language.”
And then, “Hit Me Like That Snare” is a back-alley grunge, Monster Mash-esque roller coaster. Unger-Hamilton sings “In the house of slithering, floor full of happy wizards scissoring,” with haunting synth and lo-fi vocals.
Each track mixes signature Alt-J tactics with experimental frontiers. The result is a scope of songs that find emotional impact in ways unconventional even for Alt-J.
Tracks like “Adeline” are melancholy, and the pace even lurches to a hymnal drawl in “Last Year.” Then “Deadcrush” beats to an industrial, Nine Inch Nails groove.
Yet the album never loses focus or wears down. Each new piece delves deeper into minimalist or acoustic styles but stays firmly within the realm of it’s own sound. Alt-J shows tight discipline in controlling that sound and not letting it’s concepts become too outrageous.
Alt-J’s lyricism is as obtuse as the band’s musicality. Unger-Hamilton sings about the band’s crush on historical figures in “Deadcrush.” In “Last Year,” he sings about a year of struggling with depression and suicide. “Relaxer” as a whole finds a comfortable balance between playfulness and more serious topics.
With so much going on, “Relaxer” may appear to be a strewn mess, but it’s binded together with the cohesive marks of Alt-J.
Whether adding a horn section, strings section or electronic sampling, “Relaxer” demonstrates Alt-J’s ability to choose the right sounds for the right effects. Each track’s placement feels deliberate and well-tuned with the rest of the album, and as a result, it flows in a manner that makes the thirty-nine minutes fresh and interesting at every turn.
Even the cover of American folk song “The House of the Rising Sun,” though stripped and humble, clearly displays Alt-J’s presence mixed into a folk rendition.
In past records, Alt-J played with different sounds within their genre. “Relaxer” pushes past that, grabbing for new ideas outside the realm of alternative rock in nearly every song. Despite this breadth, there are still enough binding Alt-J elements and carefully planned transitions to construct a unifying theme.
And yet, not every tracks is memorable. “House of the Rising Sun” feels too vacuous and lacks the spice needed to withstand feeling lost among the countless other covers of the same song. Most of the album, however, has that special shine that shows experimentation with unconventional styles continues to pay off.
Alt-J is scheduled for over eighty-eight shows for the remainder of the year, and will perform in Indianapolis in October.
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