Album review: Alt J – Relaxer

Following on from the hugely successful debut release ‘An Awesome Wave’, the talented trio treated fans to a second album in 2014 that failed to achieve the same impact.

Their most dedicated fans and their harshest critiques will be listening carefully, as this month they finally put out ‘Relaxer’. Anybody lucky enough to witness the band touring their first album would have noticed the fact that it was pretty much a rendition of the project from start to finish. For a band that experiments with recording techniques and instrumentation, the way they managed to translate tracks such as ‘Taro’ was magical; that eastern string sound for example is actually an electric guitar trick. With much more music to pick from their live shows will surely now be more varied, how many from their latest album will make it onto their set lists in years to come?

There are many intriguing moments like on ‘Last Year’, which features delicate steel guitar plucks. The usual mumbled lyrics involving diazepam and school cafeterias are particularly inaudible during the first half, there are some beautiful vocal layers from the rest of the band as well. Later on an unfamiliar female voice sings about Mississippi, a stunning oboe solo is also the perfect accompaniment to an otherwise stagnant progression.

‘3WW’ is a very different offering, with off-beat clicks, and a thick bass line inspired by the likes of Massive Attack. It is a relatively moody piece that eventually morphs into a summery number, making for a confusing listen. Each element feels rushed, and there are spikes in energy that feel out of place. The female vocals towards the end are equally as jarring, this may be their attempt at a St. Peppers vibe but it fails miserably.

Relaxer is the third studio album by English indie rock band alt-J

For a rock band to choose the title ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is strange, luckily it is not a straight cover and is instead more of an ode to the original. They have modernised the lyrics and created a totally new accompaniment, surprisingly this actually ends up being one of the album’s highlights, thanks to its masses of texture and clever instrumentation.

The lead singer’s uniquely nasal singing has gained him as many haters as it has fans; on ‘Deadcrush’ we hear every delivery style he possesses. Some falsetto, some whispery moments, as well as powerful lower runs; and it wouldn’t be alt-j without more male harmonies reminiscent of The Futureheads. The indie rockers choose a heavier approach on this one, opting for distorted bass, foley effects and trippy voices. Joe Newman gives a confident performance; there are shiny synthetic elements to accompany this ambitious production, as well as one of the album’s few solid drum tracks.

‘Pleader’ also stands out; it highlights their traditional folk and classical influences. It appears to be referencing church music and Christian hymns, again there appears to be a real lack of direction. At times the melodies echo the Middle Eastern vibes of ‘Taro’, while their use of soundscapes paints another complicated picture. Their vocals are far from clear as crystal, but this will no doubt receive the sing-along treatment during their 2017 festival circuit.

Ultimately it is becoming clear that alt-j may well have burnt out too soon, by creating so many hits with their first release I fear they may never be able to hit the same highs. With a busy touring schedule and a shakeup of band members, it has possibly left them without enough studio time. Something I am sure they had more of as university students, while they wrote melodies and lyrics in between lectures and deadlines.

In isolation this album would receive pretty good press, but when compared to the fireworks of their debut release, ‘Relaxer’ does not hold up. It is on the whole, less imaginative, less catchy and no where near as groundbreaking. Why not come and listen to it in your local Richer Sounds demo room today to make up your own mind?