alt-J – Relaxer

From Leeds University student bedroom band to global phenomenon. Perhaps the least expected indie breakthrough of recent years, alt-J hit new heights last year when they headlined Madison Square Garden. It was less than ten years ago that they first started to make music in student digs, their sound partially founded on the basis that they had to keep the noise down, hence less emphasis on drums and bass in their music, but which consequently forced them to explore innovative sound avenues. Furthermore, their sound was/is also affected by the fact that drummer Thom Green is 80% deaf.

In fact they have tried to closely resemble those initial working conditions ever since, including using the same producer (Charlie Andrew) knowing that, in essence, that is where their pot of gold was initially forged. And why fix something that isn’t broken, right? Their An Awesome Wave debut album, which won the Mercury Music Prize, catapulted them on their way, from which they have never looked back.

This is album number three from these indie-sophisticates, a work that expands on their sound, becoming increasingly complex and yet nuanced, albeit written and arranged in a less ‘journey’ type fashion. I.e. these are essentially individual tracks, rather than an album dictatorially constructed as an all-in listening experience. This is reflected in the diversive fare on offer, eight tracks by turns punchy, and meditative songs, that can be enjoyed in any order.

Partly a reflection of the album’s contents, Relaxer in name suggests a band in command of their art, to the point where there is almost total, albeit a sometimes misplaced, confidence in their abilities. In tandem with that is the old school digital artwork (culled from the cult Playstation One game LSD: Dream Emulator), which depicts a technicolor/urban vanishing point, an imaginary post-modern world. It’s an apt description of alt-J’s musicality, which lures you in with its strong sense of space and dynamics.

This is best exemplified by the opening track ‘3WW’ which is an abbreviation of three worn words, a song that “traces the adventures of a wayward lad on England’s northeast coast, culminating in the whispering of three worn words.” It’s full of sexual awakening and adventure, and features the voices of alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton, Joe Newman as well as Wolf Alice’s Ellie Roswell. “I just want to love you in my own language,” they sing against a multi-faceted background of beguiling prog-folk, with electronica, a distorted wave of guitar, shakers, dubby bass and much else besides. It’s weird and wonderful as is the more punchy ‘In Cold Blood’, a hard-to-decipher song that seems to describe a carefree pool party set against a violent backdrop of murder and mayhem. The official video release features the deep and rough voice of Iggy Pop doing a David Attenborough voiceover, in this National Geographicmeets-Tarantino landscape of death and blood. Go figure!

Back in the day they might have been called progressive, and certainly hints at why original 70s prog-rock was massive, bands like King Crimson earning huge rewards for their essentially ‘difficult’ music, that was both restless and unsettling, but also magical and colourful. But, again, just when you think alt-J are getting all super-prog on us, they pull the rug out from underneath, beginning with their version of the traditional folk song ‘House of The Rising Sun’. While they use some of the same Woody Guthrie arranged lyrics, it’s turned it into a contemporary song, with a new chorus, and performed with 20 classical guitarists, brought in to give it that massed and epic feel. Some may argue that the original working class sins and struggles of the song have been misappropriated by three well-bred and educated men from England, but musically it is an inspired re-boot and re-calibrated sentiment that sits more easily within the rolling green hills and relatively rich landscape of this country, rather than the dusty outcrops and wooden shacks of somewhere in the US none of us have any real idea about.

Moreover ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ is the polar opposite to ‘3WW’ and ‘In Cold Blood’; a raw, punky and relatively carefree live-in-the-studio jam, that replicates in method the similarly live tracked ‘Left Hand Free’ from their previous album. And ‘Deadcrush’ is all deep and dirty garage electro rock, with Newman doing a near approximation of Gary Numan.

The good stuff keeps on rolling with ‘Adeline’ where fragile vocals are counteracted by sturdy acoustic fingerpicking and swelling harmonics. However, alt-j fail to hit the spot in the deeply downbeat ‘Last Year’. Very stripped back and uber-mournful, this two-parter firstly concerns someone’s last year before a suicide, before Marika Hackman takes over vocals in the role of the victim’s lover/partner, at his funeral. But even she can’t bring this one to life, metaphorically speaking.

Final track ‘Pleader’, inspired by the novel, and which was partly recorded in Ely Cathedral where Unger-Hamilton was a chorister, doesn’t raise the pulse much either, another gentle acoustic-based song that tries to inject some interest via disconcerting electronics, and random flute and bombastic chords, but faisl in geling these disparate elements.

Six out of eight ain’t bad, and alt-J will no doubt run with that for the foreseeable future. They’ve proved beyond doubt that they are no fluke. Both meditative and packing a punch, Relaxer is another clear demonstration of the formidable creativity and innovation that resides in the trio, one based on no formal training, just a collective and adventurous sense of what works.
Jeff Hemmings