What do we already know about alt-J? They have redefined the genre of indie with their slightly insane lyrics and use of guitar, yes, and they seem to love triangles. I think the best two words to describe this band are weird and wonderfully. Weirdly wonderfully, wonderfully weird, take your pick.
Gwil, Joe, Thom and Gus met at Leeds University and formed in 2007. Their first release, An Awesome Wave, in 2012 set an enigmatic tone for the band, which is still present in today’s music. The album was an instant hit with a little help from singles “Breezeblocks,” “Taro” and “Tessellate.”
Later that year, they even went on to win the British Mercury Prize award. 2014 saw the release of their second studio album, This Is All Yours, and also the departure of bassist/guitarist Gwil. The album promoted three singles “Hunger of the Pine,” “Left Hand Free,” and “Every Other Freckle” and even reached number 1 on the UK albums chart. Fast forward three years and we have Relaxer.
The album slowly fades in with “3WW,” at first all we can hear is the single use of a guitar and a persistent clicking noise. Then, in comes Joe with that same old distinctive yet beautiful voice. The song has a very eccentric and middle eastern sound to it, something alt-J have perfected since their first album.
It is no doubt a very unusual start to an album, but in a way it is refreshing. We are given the chance to settle into the album at our own pace as opposed to being thrust into loud, harsh tones from the get go.
Simple, smooth and relaxing, the album quickly flips to the upbeat and sinister sounds of “In Cold Blood.” Taking us back to the beginning, this song is very reminiscent of “Breezeblocks.” It’s amazing how they can sing about numbers “01110011” and make it something to sing along to.
The single is a lot catchier than the first track and provides a perfect use of trumpets over the chorus. With what appears to be the sound of an organ, which is an awesome addition to the other instruments. It is so modern yet so classic at the same time. The trumpet and organ provide a perfect juxtapose to the beat of the drums and the alternative guitar riff. This may be my favourite song of the album.
Next up is a hauntingly beautiful rendition of “House of the Rising Sun.” These guys somehow manage to make this timeless classic one of their own. This song features a lovely violin over the picking of the acoustic guitar. alt-J completely re-invents this song adding an optimistic twist on it as appose to the dark vibe to the original.
We are quickly thrown back into the upbeat sounds of perfect indie tunes with “Hit Me like that Snare“. The song oozes sex appeal and sensuality with suggestive lyrics like “come closer, baby, slap me like that snare”. alt-J completely changes it up and let’s loose with this track.
We are so used to their songs being controlled and calm yet they completely throw that idea out of the window on this one. The vocals and lyrics are a lot more aggressive and the guitar just a little bit heavier and it’s safe to say it works perfectly. A true alternative anthem. One to sing your heart out to. Good luck learning the lyrics though, as some of them are in Japanese!
“Deadcrush” is up next and begins with one of the coolest drumbeats I’ve heard, with heavy, quick breathing over the top; this is another sexually driven song.
The band experiments ever so slightly with synthesisers gracing the background, leaving no room for white noise. Not all experiments pay off but this one certainly does. As always the lyrics are kind of hard to understand (as with any other alt-J song) but even so – the mood is set and the track is really enjoyable.
Reverting back to their original roots with “Adeline,” which in my opinion, is like a part two to the track “Matilda,” it is soft and inviting with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and Joe’s idyllic deep tones.
The harmonies on this track are particularly beautiful and, in a way, haunting. As we get deeper into the verses, the layers of sound become more apparent and the use of reverb really adds to the suspense. The song begins to build with the sounds of drums forming like marching footsteps. “I wish her well (My Adeline)“, before everything stops and silence falls.
“Last Year” plays next and jumps straight in with vocals. “January came and took my heart away“, this line resonates and rings out in your ears and tugs at your heartstrings.
Once again we are serenaded with the single use of an acoustic guitar. The best way I can describe this song is cynical yet romantic. It sounds like something you would use as your first dance at your wedding, but the lyrics are such as a stark contract to happiness. The track is painfully sad and makes you drift away with each story of each month of the year.
We reach the end of a short yet wonderful journey with “Pleader.” Beginning with a Spanish-like quick riff, the song revolves around the fast progression of these notes, the added violins and picking of a harp, create a sort of uneasy feeling but then when the vocals come in we are left feeling warm and safe again. The song is very similar to something you would hear blasting from the altar of a church.
The second verse takes on a more sinister point of view but then drastically changes back to calm sounds. There are not many lyrics in this song, but the music does all the talking. Choirs begin to back up Joe’s vocals, which sent shivers down my spine. It really started to feel like the end and I didn’t want it to be.
In conclusion I would say this album is a strong addition to the two existing albums and flows very nicely to each song. Obviously there are songs that are a lot better than others but I wouldn’t say there was a song I disliked. For existing alt-J fans, I think you will be happy with the end product.
The band manages to experiment with new sound without straying too far from their ever so important roots. I would recommend this album to anything looking to embrace new and different music. Let’s face it, they are like marmite, you either love them or you hate them. Have a listen and make your own decision. As for me, I love the weirdness of the band; it only makes their music more interesting.
alt-J Relaxer is out on now via Infection Music, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words By Georgia Hampson