Release Date: Jun 2, 2017
Record label: Atlantic
Almost exactly midway through ‘Relaxer’, at the culmination of primal, yelping highlight ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, the instrumentation cuts out, leaving the three members of alt-J chanting its repeated final refrain: "Fuck you / I’ll do what I wanna do". Not just a defiant call to arms, it feels like the motto the band have quietly been muttering their entire careers. Impossible to pigeonhole and resolutely determined to beat to their own drum, alt-J have been pulling the rug from under the established mainstream path since the beginning.
Alt-J's 'Relaxer' is not exactly an indie record by numbers. This is the group's first album since 2014's 'This Is All Yours' and it's half a decade since the band were inescapable with their Mercury Prize-winning debut 'An Awesome Wave'. Throughout this time, the Leeds-formed trio have only gotten weirder - they never hint at going by the book. With 'Relaxer', they remain devotedly nerdy.
One wouldn't assume that a series of zeroes and ones could be sung in a convincing, let alone catchy, refrain. It might also seem equally impossible to sing a revolutionary new rendition of a song as overexposed as "The House of the Rising Sun." Yet alt-J do all that and more on their new LP, Relaxer. Yes, the British trio have plenty of surprises on this new album, their third since 2012's Mercury Prize winning debut, An Awesome Wave.
Alt-J have knuckled down. Stripped of intros, interludes and all that posturing, this album feels - as its low-res computer graphical cover and robotically capitalised title RELAXER suggest - like an executable file, to be played in moments of emotional escape. Its compact eight tracks, running at a mere 40 minutes, offer controlled segments of medidative horizons and wry alt-pop - sequenced like binary code.
From the start, Relaxer, the third album from the alt-prog indietron band alt-J, appears to be a rabbit hole of Alice-In-Wonderland proportions. The UK group initially teased the record with a cryptic code of zeroes and ones, which translates to "3WW," the name of the album's ambient, acoustic opener. The same code later becomes the mental mantra of a deranged killer in the Bond theme-like "In Cold Blood." Just as strong as their previous two albums, Relaxer sees alt-J continuing to explore new sonic territory, mixing powerful beats with dangerous, heart-wrenching tales.
Don't mistake the title of Alt-J's third album, Relaxer, as any profound metaphor or for having some hidden meaning. In earnest, the title is as literal as it gets: Relaxer is a collection of slow, ambient ballads by the English indie rock band best known for their quirky, frenetic sound. Those looking for the upbeat digital folk sounds of "Breezeblocks" or "Left Hand Free" will feel like they're in the wrong place on the slower-paced but wonderfully moody Relaxer. For comparison, think Bloc Party's 2016 record, Hymns, an experimental album only in that it ditched the band's prominent drumming and stylish guitar effects in favour of quiet, vocal-centric ballads.
A heady and sometimes capricious piece of work that vacillates between pastoral folk, classical crossover, proto-punk, and progressive rock, the Mercury Prize-winning trio's third LP is never clear about its overall intentions. The same could be said about Alt-J's two previous albums as well, but Relaxer is a thornier beast than either of them, carefully concealing its myriad barbs beneath bucolic washes of meticulously forged comeliness. Bookended by what are for all intents and purposes a pair of augmented English folk ballads, the first ("3WW") a patient, swoon-worthy pagan love song, and the second ("Pleader") an impossibly lush, choir-led anthem/hymn inspired by mining in 19th century Wales, Relaxer is aptly named, as between those two cuts lies a swath of idyllic sonic farmland that yields fruits both honeyed and acrid.
On "Hit Me Like That Snare" they sing "fuck you, I'll do what I want to do" four times in a row which is hard to avoid as as a suggestion that they don't care what people think. Fair enough, but this latest release holds the most pretention we've seen so far, and it seems likely to narrow their support. If An Awesome Wave represents the base of a triangle where they were at their most accessible; This Is All Yours and RELAXER are pinching them in to the point of increasing obscurity.
“It’s a happy, happy, happy, happy, fun day, day.” If you have a particular attachment to “The House of the Rising Sun” as the Animals, or Dolly Parton, or even Five Finger Death Punch did it (or any of the many other artists who have taken a crack at it, for that matter), the line above is going to represent something like blasphemy. Even if you don’t have an attachment to a previous version of the song, that line is a jarring one. Inserted untethered to the strict ABCB rhyme scheme of the rest of the song, it’s a passing thought, a wry statement drenched in sarcasm from the mouth of a child.
H aving made two albums of award-winning but fidgety digital folk-rock, Alt-J were ripe for evolution. The trio haven't exactly poured a vat of chemical hair relaxer into their laptops, but on this third outing they have taken a detangling wet brush to their try-hard songcraft, leaving space for these eight oblique tracks - about death, sexual trysts, literary references, Tasmania and "loving" in one's "own language" - to breathe more cinematically. The folk quotient remains noticeable: 3WW begins as a ballad might.
What if Radiohead had used their Nineties digital prog to escape into the past rather than fight the future? That's the vibe of "3WW," the prettily mordant first track on Alt-J's third record, a glitch-y modern version of Fairport Convention's folk pastorales. The U.K. art rockers have a nice time messing with history - their "House of the Rising Sun" is a minimalist chamber rumble, with singer-guitarist Joe Newman adding his own poetry to the original.
Between the Mercury Prize that came with their 2012 debut and continued commercial success, Alt-J are something of an anomaly in 2017, a successful modern alternative rock band not riding the coattails of hits from a decade ago. Their success arises from their general inoffensiveness, a palatable interpretation of late-’00s Radiohead, Foals, and Grizzly Bear records. For their third album, Relaxer, the British trio decided to challenge themselves by expanding their sound beyond the muted, pensive rock of their early years.
After a fully-realised debut that threatened to serve as both their introduction to the world and their insurmountable, definitive statement, Alt-J suffered the dreaded Curse of the Mercury Music Prize, delivering the aggressively tedious and inexcusably bloated sophomore effort, This Is All Yours. Three years on from that, the trio return with an album that finds them following their creative muse down some head-scratching paths. Let's get one thing out of the way early and save everyone some time.
OK. So there is a house in New Orleans, right? Place of sin and misery and the ruin of many poor girls and boys, right? Whether or not this house actually exists or not is moot, for the symbolic nadir that imprisons the working classes - the drunkard's tab, the gambler's impulse, the prostitute's contract - never goes away. Thus, from the backwoods of Kentucky to the streets of London, from Lead Belly to Nina Simone to Dolly Parton, "House of the Rising Sun" persists - and most times, could still scare you stiff into sobriety.
Like many bands who stumble unexpectedly into massive success, alt-J have endured their fair share of withering backlash. Witness this parody video, in which two men munching rice cakes quickly assemble a note-perfect parody of an alt-j song called "Put It In My Butt"--it went viral. alt-J themselves mostly responded to this mockery with humility, good humor, and grace (they made that rice cake video into their Twitter avatar).
alt-J have returned from a two-year respite, and this time they bring with them a low-res tapestry of ember-fuelled slow burners. Named 'Relaxer', the record lives up to its title, an anaesthetising eight-track aural experience. The trio's signature, folktronic sound is placed on the backburner, and what leads is a mix of redolent, cabin-fever creations - hymnal, with a touch of pastoral.
For the past 5 years, Alt-J (or ∆, if you prefer) has functioned as a bridge of sorts, a pipeline between oddball musical ideas suited for indieheads and something more aspiring. To date, it has manifested as a sort of malfunctioning pop ambition, captured by their two largest singles “Breezeblocks” and “Left Hand Free”. Outside of these juggernauts there’s a band desperate to be deeply weird, but unable to stay away from the dopamine surges that come with a soaring hook for too long.