All the way back in 2012, Alt-J, aka ∆, created an awesome wave with their debut album and put Leeds on the map of relevant patrician music – and no, Kaiser Chiefs are not patrician nor relevant. Alt-J’s successful blend of electronica, indie, folk and art pop led to An Awesome Wave winning the 2012 Mercury Prize and their sophomore album, This Is All Yours, hitting #1 on the UK Albums Chart. Calling them ‘prog’ might be a stretch, but the band’s artistic flair and proficiency in the unlikely genre of ‘folktronica’ are certainly interesting enough to make Alt-J stand out in the world of popular music.
But what of their latest record? Leth and Cerpin take Relaxer for a special ‘Beyond the Wall’ trip on our Roundabout – but do they reach the same conclusions about the album?
As ever, we’d like to remind you that our Roundabouts are compilations of each Prog Talk admin’s individual and subjective opinions. While we may or may not have expressed our thoughts on the album in private beforehand, we do not collude whilst writing our reviews. So without further ado let’s talk… indie pop?
I can’t recall a previous time where an artist has dropped three consecutive singles that are nothing short of outstanding. Alt-J’s string of ‘3WW’, ‘In Cold Blood’ and ‘Adeline’ had me seriously excited for Relaxer, which was pleasantly surprising given how lukewarm I found This Is All Yours. Do I think that Relaxer is the best album of the year? No, not quite; I feel that the rest of the record doesn’t summate to the excellence of its three singles, and it results in an inconsistency in tone and quality that makes the record feel more like a mixtape than a coherent album. Despite this, Relaxer is a very good effort overall with hands-down some of the best songs from 2017 so far.
The tender, oriental aesthetic in ‘3WW’; ‘Pleader’s choral splendour and ‘Adeline’s tribal drums are great contrasts to modernisms found in the dynamic, groovy ‘In Cold Blood’ and the booming, moody ‘Deadcrush’. Yet all of these tracks have the band’s distinctive laid-back electronic and folk elements, whether they’re progressed into or are consistently underlying, and manage to build luscious arrangements and vocal harmonies. ‘Adeline’ deserves special recognition, mainly because it’s grown to be my favourite song of the year: Alt-J paint a scene of a Tasmanian devil watching Adeline swim, and its simplicity is simply infatuating. The fragile vocals set against guitar arpeggios and swells of strings are crushingly beautiful, and the Forest Swords-esque vocal chants against mumbles of “I wish you well” in ‘Adeline’s climax are hair-raising.
Relaxer features some of the band’s most subdued tracks: ‘Last Year’ and Alt-J’s cover of the exhausted folk classic, ‘House of the Rising Sun’. While they’re pleasant enough individually, these tracks feel pedestrian to the point of stagnation and lose the momentum gained in the other tracks. They’re fine songs, but these tracks struggle to cohere with the rest of the album, contributing to Relaxer’s awkward flow.
Speaking of awkward, let’s talk about ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’.
The slimy vocals, the ‘Welcome to the Jungle’-esque wails and the sleazy lyrics feel uncomfortably uncharacteristic of Alt-J. Although the lo-fi instrumentation redeems the song somewhat, its inclusion in Relaxer is utterly baffling. If ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ is meant to be Alt-J’s rebellious anthem, they’re a little too late, what with their critical acclaim being poles apart from what sounds to be a punk-turned-bedroom-musician’s ode to angst. Alternatively, if ‘…Snare’ is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, ironic or a parody, I ain’t laughing – if anything, it’s a little embarrassing to listen to.
With Relaxer being so concise in having only 8 tracks spanning over 39 minutes, I feel that its sole dodgy track and incoherent flow can’t go unnoticed. From ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ to ‘Adeline’, it’s a little frustrating to see such polarizing songs in such a short time-span; but ultimately the record’s strengths vastly outnumber its flaws. While I do think that An Awesome Wave is a stronger album, Relaxer features some of Alt-J’s best tracks and even some of the best songs of the year – it’s definitely worth checking out, even by those skeptical of indie pop.
This is a review regarding an album with the potential to be a modern day icon, and the few unusual choices which kept it from that greatness.
Alt-J have always been somewhat of an anomaly in the music world. Even when winning a Mercury Prize for their 2012 debut An Awesome Wave, Alt-J did so with a somewhat refreshing and meditative sound which could only be perceived as “bizarre” in a market steadily growing oversaturated with sterility.
This same quirkiness immediately becomes evident, if not spotlighted, with Relaxer. With an album cover, music video and even a website design based on an obscure ’98 Japanese video game by the name of LSD (Dream Emulator), the early singles to the album definitely seemed to emulate the video game’s artiness and obsession with atmospheric wandering, and nail it with confidence.
‘3WW’ is one of the best meditative pop tracks to be released this decade, with the somewhat psychedelic feel of the guitar alongside the ever-present shaker percussion creating a beautiful atmosphere of serenity and adding further impact to the juxtaposed grandeur of the chorus. ‘In Cold Blood’s fusion of western guitars and harsh synths with brass chorus also sets a wholly unique soundscape which works in spite of all of its contrasts. Meanwhile ‘Adeline’ holds an almost post-rockish understanding of momentum and pacing, making for a truly wondrous and cinematic presentation.
However, utilising these choices as the main singles leading up to the album’s release may have been somewhat of a double-edged sword. Barring the absolute stunner of a closer that is ‘Pleader’, these are easily the best tracks on the album, and they also set up a certain expectation of the album’s sound which is ultimately shattered by the first few non-single tracks presented to the listener. While Alt-J‘s cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is definitely among the better half of the hundreds upon hundreds of renditions the song has gained over the years, complete with incredibly welcome new additions in both verse and melody, the aesthetic of the song’s sincerity doesn’t quite match any of the songs which precede or follow it – perhaps barring ‘Last Year’s folksiness, which is found on the reverse end of the album.
Then there’s ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, which is such a jarring and unnecessary shift in the tone for the album that it comes off as ultimately gimmicky and quirky solely for the hell of it. I don’t even necessarily dislike the track, but I can guarantee that absolutely no one could ever justify its existence on this particular album. I’d also like to give the album credit by declaring the track to be an ironic presentation of wild youth, with its garage punk aesthetic and repeated “Fuck you! I’ll do! What I want to do!” chants, but the more cynical part of my mind keeps wondering if this is even ironic to begin with. The track is outlandish to not only the tone of the album, but the album’s drive as a whole.
That said, I can still confirm beyond the shadow of a doubt that I love Relaxer, and possibly even consider it Alt-J‘s best to date. At their worst, the album turns bizarre, with an almost uncomfortably lack of confidence in its own identity. But at it’s best, this is a fantastic experiment of an album, made by a band wishing to push its sound to new heights, and managing to achieve precisely that, if only 90% of the time.
Well there you have it – Relaxer gets two thumbs up from Leth and Cerpin for its fantastic singles, but both agree that there’s a disparity between them and the majority of the rest of the album; especially the oddball ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’. Alt-J have again shown their prowess at remaining left of field in the world of indie and art pop, even if not always for the right reasons – and these admins would definitely recommend giving Relaxer a listen, or even just the singles at the very least.
But what do you make of Relaxer? Do you think that Alt-J even have enough prog elements to be considered as being ‘Beyond the Wall’? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!