Album Review: Alt-J – Relaxer

If there was a singular detail that separates Alt-J from their modern contemporaries, it would have to be the immense thought and care that goes into crafting their specific narratives, often times only immediately accessible to a certain few. Their music is not designed to be a fleeting, faded sound to be heard in the background, but exclusively reserved for those who wish to isolate themselves, peirce its thick, compact flesh, and let the juices freely flow down their chin. Relaxer, the trio’s third full length album, offers the chance for this savage practice tenfold, perhaps even more than their past work. But, true to its name, it also takes the time to release some of the pressure in order to tell wonderfully dense and detailed stories, most of which deal with how people perceive the idea of love and lust, satisfaction and sadness, either as individual concepts or how they interact simultaneously.

Relaxer might be the most obscure and experimental album Alt-J has ever released, as well as the most sensual; it’s almost as if it exists as a perfect amalgamation of their first two albums, taking the moody unpredictability of An Awesome Wave and the delicacy and romance of This Is All Yours. The sensuality, however, is at times placed not in a forgiving landscape, but instead an glitchy, savage wonderland where all rules go out the window, and somehow, Alt- J more than manage to get away with it. In fact, it’s the blatant, brilliant contradiction of their graphic, emotion soaked narratives to the fantastical, effect laden sounds that keeps the madness from gaining too much momentum – their thoughtful minds stabilize their feet that so desperately wish to float into the ether.  Of course, that doesn’t mean their more bizarre thoughts don’t bleed into their creations every now and again, and the ones they’ve chosen to include this time around are their most perplexing and arresting to date.

“In Cold Blood” begins with a slew of binary, arresting, piercing and esoteric, as is their want. While the track sounds bright and energetic, a deeper listen and glance at the lyrics reveals that a man has been killed during a pool party, and that same positive energy turns frantic and chaotic, the horns and glitchy keyboards mingling together in some sort of demented, violent menagerie – and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. “Adeline” is, literally, about a Tasmanian devil that falls in love with a woman after watching her swim, but from the amount of care and passion in both the smooth, milky guitar and piano instrumentals as well as Joe Newman’s vocal swells, you’d think the devil were a complicated being with a highly sensitive, bleeding heart, able to feel such complex emotions as mankind. Again, the listener sees and hears the contrast and concurrent communication between the savage and delicate as the creature must turn away from the object of his desire, for their lives are far too different. At the end of his journey through his emotions, he wishes her well as the urges in his head and heart battle each other, expressed through a thick, dense forest of vocal samples and grandiose instrumentals. The trio even messes around with the Animals’ 1964 hit “House of the Rising Sun,” where instead of a man chained to the world of gambling and alcohol, his father is chained instead, and his mother can’t help but sew jeans to pay for his addiction. As a result it sounds even darker, completely furloughing the miniscule shard of hope the original managed to secure.

The focus on differing perspectives on love and lust is also very much prominent throughout Relaxer, in both its blatant and subtle forms. “Hit Me Like That Snare” is very much in the former category, and exists not only as the British trio’s most bizarre and uncomfortable tracks, but perhaps one of the strangest tracks in the history of alt indie music. After what seems like a cowbell induced orgasm, Newman delivers a vocal line that resembles a drunken, hysteric drawl, with as many euphemisms for sex you can imagine. “Deadcrush” exists in the middle, where Newman and Gus Unger-Hamilton tell us about their “dead crushes,” photographer Elizabeth “Lee” Miller and Anna Bolina, referring to Anne Boleyn. It’s a narrative that hasn’t been touched on much in the past, but this as well as the long, drawn out “Last Year” and “Pleader” are tracks that will only immediately make sense to a certain few, and at first glance, may be far too overwhelming to fully embrace like the others.

The magnum opus of the album must be “3WW,” as it seems to utilize Alt-J’s unique composition style found in Relaxer the most eloquently. Much like the idea of love itself, it is multi-faceted, sounding like a love song one moment and a glitchy, eerie nightmare the next, as it focuses on two separate, but intertwining perspectives. The plucks of guitar simulate the “wayward lad’s” soft, anxious footsteps as he leaves the comfort of his pastoral life to discover love, or at least offer a love “in his own language.” He wishes for something more substantial, for the words “I love you” have become worn with overuse like the “rubbing hands of tourists in Verona,” referring to those who have ruined the patina of the statue of Juliet in Verona, wanting luck in love. The instrumentals become more industrial and sterile as he learns the hard way that others’ ideas of love are not as sincere and meaningful as his – the girls that take advantage of his purity leave him a note the morning after their encounter, asking him with a laugh if it was his “first time.” The instrumentals become quiet and ashamed, but the boy repeats his desire to love another the way he thinks is the most substantial, his morals remaining the last pure, quiet breath into the corrupt world he left everything to experience.

Relaxer is at the least a deep dive into the highly functioning minds of three incredibly talented musicians and songwriters, at the most a strange, yet rewarding third installment of a musical project that will never be replicated.

8.7/10

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photo by Gabriel Green / big hassle

Alt-J – “Adeline”

Early next month, Alt-J will release their third and highly anticipated full length album Relaxer. The trio have already shared two stunning tracks from the record – the sensual and evocative “3WW” as well as the glitchy, horn and synth heavy “In Cold Blood.” Today, they’ve shared “Adeline,” a soft, atmospheric addition to what might be their most experimental album to date. Much like their entire discography, the track tells a specific story in carefully chosen, tender language, this time according to the band about a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a woman after watching her swim. Of course, the lyrics can be taken literally or metaphorically, the latter perhaps easier to relate with considering that at its core, the track is about a lost or never realized love. Amidst swirls of mesmerizing, sorrowful piano, the Tasmanian devil, communicated by Joe Newman’s soft voice, wishes his love well, and watches her swim away, his inconsolable, bleeding heart expressed through the slowly expanding closer.

Relaxer will be released on June 2nd.

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photo by Gabriel Green / big hassle

Alt-J – “In Cold Blood”

Earlier this month, Alt-J announced the release of their third album Relaxer, and shared the glitchy, industrial inspired first single “3WW.” The newest from the upcoming full-length is just as electrifying as the first – in fact, it sounds like the perfect marriage between their first two albums, intertwining the lyrical obscurity and melodic unpredictability of debut An Awesome Wave with the erotic, sensual nature of sophomore This Is All Yours. It bursts forward with intense immediacy and frontman Joe Newman yelling binary, going on and on about summer and pools, and constantly asking for a kiss. The instrumentals are complex and the timing is almost perfectly askew, with horns and synth somehow in perfect harmony. The best part, however, is that the signature Alt-J “la-la-la’s” are back, with even more power than ever.

Relaxer will now be released on June 2nd, a week earlier than previously stated.

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photo courtesy of artist/ press

Alt-J – “3WW”

Three years after their absolutely stunning sophomore album This is All Yours, Alt-J have returned with news of the upcoming release of their third full-length album Relaxer, as well as shared the first intoxicating single. “3WW” has the band more experimental than ever, with a menagerie of light, bouncy guitar pierced with frontman Joe Newman’s signature flinty, cracking vocals, communicating a frustratingly esoteric, beautifully poetic, and here, surprisingly sensual lyrical narrative. In true, unbearably unique Alt-J style, it somehow gives off a bulky, industrial feeling as well as a dream-like haziness, communicating a powerful message in just a few abstract images.

Relaxer will be released on June 9th.

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photo by Gabriel Green/courtesy of artist

Portico – “101” (feat. Joe Newman)

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In their debut album Living Fields, electronic band Portico explores dark, sullen, yet absolutely gorgeous worlds that evoke all kinds of different, beautiful images. They definitely take the ambient genre very seriously, and it’s shown in the breathtaking track “101.” After a tantalizing, metallic sounding intro that slowly reaches a peaceful void, vocalist Joe Newman from experimental band Alt-J takes over. His soft, whispering voice embraces the sharp beats and textured synth, giving the track an almost celestial and and divine feeling. It mentions Gene Kelly and his role in Singing in the Rain, making it fit well with Joe Newman and his lyrical aesthetic of including references from books, movies, and prominent figures throughout history. It’s definitely a track that begs to be played over and over again, and it’s already extremely close to making my list of the top songs of 2015.

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photo courtesy of the artist

Album Review: Alt-J – This Is All Yours

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A few months ago, I did a Band Appreciation Friday on English alternative/experimental band Alt-J, where I reviewed their debut album An Awesome Wave. That post was before the release of their sophomore album, This is All Yours, however, which deserves a review all it’s own.

When I heard “Hunger of the Pine” for the first time a month or so ago, I could hear the vast difference in Alt-J’s sound. This was not at all surprising, however, considering that bassist Gwil Sainsbury had left the band a couple months prior. I could tell the band had slowly started to embrace the darker, more evocative sides of their experimental music, and that theory only grew stronger when their single “Every Other Freckle” was released. The instrumentals are heavier and deeper than their last album, or it was as if they borrowed the bass line for “Fitzpleasure” for all of their fast-paced tracks. This wasn’t a problem for me, however, considering I enjoy that sort of change. “Intro” sounds like it could go hand in hand with “Intro” from An Awesome Wave, and it’s similarities brought a smirk of appreciation to my face when I first heard it. However, where the album goes a bit askew is the long, slow tracks that take up the first and last parts of the album. These chronological tracks, including “Arrival in Nara,” “Garden of England” and “Leaving Nara” could be mistaken for instrumentals, considering you only really hear real vocals a portion of the time or not at all. Also, “Left Hand Free,” their most popular single, was no doubt a parody for something. The western swing style of that track was so bizarre and didn’t match anything the band had done before. While it is catchy, I was annoyed when I kept hearing it on the radio, when there were so many other tracks from them to choose from.

Critiques aside, there are moments where I felt the same sort of infatuation that I felt with Alt-J’s debut. Joe Newman has not skimped on his songwriting, something that I was grateful for. I thrived on his words and the odd, yet sensual ways they were placed together, touching on everything from love and lack thereof. Yes, there were some strange lyrics, but that’s what makes the band unique and wonderful. Tracks like “Bloodflood pt. II,” “Nara,” and “Warm Foothills” highlight those familiar vocals and instrumentals, and they are the best on the album, hands down. “Warm Foothills,” especially, was so wonderful in the fact that it introduced something I had never really heard that much of before: spliced vocals. The construction of this was so seamless and absolutely beautiful. I also enjoyed the continuation of their track “Bloodflood” into “Bloodflood pt. II,” where I was pleasantly surprised to hear some of the vocals from “Fitzpleasure.” It was a great treat for all the listeners, for sure.

I loved An Awesome Wave so much more than This Is All Yours, simply because I felt there was more connection with the words being sung and the music behind it. Each track was a journey into another world, but they still managed to have fluidity, where each track would seamlessly merge into the next. Don’t get me wrong though. I still very much enjoyed This Is All Yours and it’s calming, introspective tracks, and appreciate the fact that Alt-J is attempting to broaden their horizons and experiment more with their sound. Because, after all, a band is nothing if they’re not open-minded and willing to change, which is the idea that Alt-J and the infamous triangle symbol their name is based on symbolizes.

Best tracks: “Warm Foothills,” “Bloodflood pt.II”, “Nara”

8/10

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