Alt-J went the full Led Zeppelin III on record number three: RELAXER. Releasing an album that confuses musical genres and leaves the letters w, t and f on my face.
What’s interesting? Let me break it down:
The mumbling folky guitar plays in simple melodic utterances before Unger-Hamilton’s keyboard changes speak in a digital R’lyehian. That was the first element.
The second element began with bedroom whisper: It’s not Joe Newman’s Romeologue of young love and nostalgia waxing and waning—rarely harmonizing with the music. No, this one moves along a different songline.
It’s a pace, slow… plodding…always…moving at a
Of the Giorgio Moroder? No: of the Thom Sonny Green.
And on “3WW” this was all that was needed: one-note melodies, a click and Newman, diarizing at a single decibel. Somehow, I was entertained. These guys are raring to go the full John Cage on popular alternative, attempting bare minimalism, part-by-part and hook-by-
Enter string section and Newman nailing the always tricky moaning-in-key maneuver—his voice, barrel-rolling around his lyricism, hits the target. Third element, boom. Even they need a hook.
Playing chicken with Cageian musical theory on a popular format record? That’s some serious cheek. The violin section chorus, however, has me on line and sinker, bobbing along the strings. Lips purse in this odd satisfaction… Alt-J were just as quirky as they were beforehand. Wait… maybe I was just being premature?
The horns begin, jiving with all the killer sass of the cold brass along the slide of a synth playing the resurrecter for my router with all the cyberpunk drama it can muster. “In Cold Blood” is not even high paced but it fills a sparseness. There’s hardly an atmosphere, it’s all the instruments
It’s hard math rock. A mad science yelling: “It’s… online!”
My god, I want to give them the record Close to the Edge just to stir the band’s brain cells. Because they’re on that iron cliff between thrilling and boring progressive rock. They have the magnetic talent to stay on the safe side.
Alt-J then proceeded to jump.
Their “House of the Rising Sun” cover darkens the rooms in dull tones. It’s a classic Alt-J sleeptune. That’s not even a dig—legitimately Alt-J is a fantastic band for a nap—but that doesn’t always allow for a great tune.
It polarizes—the nature of most covers (Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah being one of few exceptions). It’s thoroughly Alt-J and contains no hint of a classic classic blues-rock sound. Without that blues snarl and howl, however, there’s no dramatic wind anymore. It’s stale grandiosity
Whatever melody was in Newman’s voice exits the record by “In The House of the Rising Sun.”
And the record continues to fall flat like a pressed leaf through “Hit Me Like That Snare.” It’s not the snare drum that hits me. Hell, I’m only tickled by a freakin’ cow-bell.
Yet, it was an exploration of a record-long theme: that of doing absolutely, undoubtedly any fucking thing they wanted. They sling particles into each other, smashing them to see what might be inside. Dr. Alt-J’s Synthenstein struggles to learn how to swing in his “LSD: Dream Simulator” world. Oh well, at least he’s no Chekov’s killer AI…
If “In Cold Blood” plays electric resurrection, “Deadcrush” brings stone cold Armageddon—forget the wah-wahs, alt-J scries their chords into steel with an electromagnetic fervor.
It’s dense with a terminator drum machine ready to stand toe to toe against an Eurythmic wave.
It’s dark like DAMN. and I’m still wondering when that collaboration between Alt-J and Kendrick Lamar is going to happen.
“Nu-uh,” says the leaden keys on Hamilton’s keyboard. “Hell no,” clicks Green’s drum machine. Right now, they are all we need. This machine no longer wants to be a man. And once Skynet’s mission is completed, the album fades with the bright eyes.
“Adeline” is sweet, gorgeous, even, but it won’t be noticed on first listen. The record resumes the sleepy, red ringed, slow beats of “Bloodflood” or “Taro” or “Arrival in Nara” but without any crescendo. If Adeline is played, it should be played in a James Bond movie, preferably in the alps.
Like “House of the Rising Sun” and “Hit Me Like That Snare,” alt-J confuses their minimalism with a sense of invincibility. But it neither bends or smells like gold. And while “Adeline” never lives up to the same potential as “Last Year,” it also doesn’t scent of the same kind of awful as the parts of “Pleader.”
Where the former discovers a harmonious blending of alt-isan interludes past and the dreaminess of “Ms” and even rediscover’s Newman’s talents for harmony, the latter stalls between parts.
One-part Victorian drama, one-part choir chant, one-part murder-mystery climax, the parts don’t line up moving too quickly between each other with little outside of the lyrical content to connect them.
The choir chant tries to drag the cut to an inspirational ending but fails. I’m inspired when a song flows—but “Pleader” chunks. And there’s the truc: alt-J’s reputation for supremely flowy records fractures by the end of Awesome Wave and is on life support after “Every Other Freckle.”
Alt-J may toss phrases between each album and thresh across similar instrumental breaks before sliding down crescent choral waves, but by Relaxer, they split their tracks wider than a gulf. They’re not trying to continue, they’re trying to deconstruct.
Sometimes deconstruction plays out like demolition, no matter how precisely programmed. Instead of expanding their sound totally, they implode on their own musicality, trying to find their way
Not everything they do is expected, but neither does that help the recording.
Instead, half of RELAXER has me head over heels for Alt-J. The other half makes me wish they held theirs.
Quick Impressions: This album sounds thought-out. The notes play from a digital pianola. Some, when given to the machinelike tendencies, are cold steel awesome. Others play with uninspiring robotic chicanery. They didn’t need more time, they needed a human touch.
Producer: Charlie Andrew
- “In Cold Blood”
- “House of the Rising Sun”
- “Hit Me Like That Snare”
- “Last Year”