By Mike A. Bryan, staff writer
Alt-J is the Apple keyboard shortcut for the Delta symbol. In case you aren’t aware, Delta symbolizes change and difference. This group underwent a major change since their inception in 2007. Today, they are a paragon for merging different styles of music together to make a unique and new sound. When their first album, “An Awesome Wave,” was released in the US in late 2012, it took a while to gain momentum. Then, it caught on like wildfire, and alt-J had numerous songs on the radio, in movies, commercials, and the like. Their music is emotionally powerful, dark, and sexual, with a driving force that moves many types of listeners. Not surprisingly, they began extensive touring and started working on a second album.
Unfortunately, that second album fit the stereotypical sophomore slump, being much more mediocre than the first in so many ways – even though it ranked high on the UK charts and was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Alternative Music Album.” Where the first album satisfied all of our dark urges, the second just hinted at them, leaving me wondering what had happened to my favorite new band.
This album, “RELAXER,” is reminiscent of the first album, with an appealing amount of variety, diversity, and experimentation; they present this all in a mellower way, perhaps with a more mature musical sensibility. It seems that alt-J have found their mojo again after the departure of their main bassist, Gwil Sainsbury, caused the drastic tempo and stylistic changes from the first album to the second. This album will be showing up on more movie soundtracks, commercials, and on the radio; the first two tracks will be on everyone’s summer playlist.
Pay no attention to the fact that Pitchfork totally canned this album, and have pooh-poohed the previous albums as well — “RELAXER” rocks, with a groovy, dark, synthy mix of indie rock with hints of funk and punk. Six of the songs feature stringed orchestration from the London Metropolitan Orchestra, lending a uniquely classical feel to their version of progressive, modern rock. Female vocals feature prominently on three tracks, with two carried by Wolf Alice singer Ellie Roswell (“3WW” and “Deadcrush”), and one by Marika Hackman who also sang on the 2nd album, “This Is All Yours.” The female vocals work well as a contrast with singer Joe Newman’s deep voice. Overall, the album is emotionally charged, wrapping its listeners in a sonic blanket of darkly beautiful melancholy, balanced with sexually driven joy.
Track-by-track, the album has some clear standouts (” 3WW” and “In Cold Blood”), but each song has its own merits as well. The opener, “3WW,” not only features the amazing vocals of Ellie Roswell, but has this looped string section that calls to mind music from the classic movie “Apocalypse Now.” alt-J follow up strongly with “In Cold Blood,” which is reminiscent of the first album with driving bass lines. The next track is puzzling at first, since it is a barely recognizable cover of “House of the Rising Sun,” but it grows on you after multiple listens. It has a pervasive subtlety, with a darkly minimalist approach to the classic song, making it even more emotional than other versions. Not surprisingly, they change it up at this point on the album, and the next track has an intense Blondie/Sex Pistols/The Clash punk ethos that is familiar and different at the same time, totally rocking out. Once again, they love to change it up, and Deadcrush sounds like the 2nd album, serving as mere filler until suddenly, it turns into a great track with that familiar, hard-driving bass line. “Adeline” is more of a downtempo track, taking the listener into the amorphous zone where alt-J exists. This downtempo feel is continued into “Last Year,” which has a Bon Iver-esque melancholy that is made even more lovely by the female vocalist. “Pleader” starts off very slowly, but builds to sound like a hymn with a truly majestic feel.
They chose to only have eight songs on this album, and the brevity works. To be honest, it does take a few listens to catch on to what alt-J is doing on this album, but it is definitely worth the time. Where the second album left me looking for more, this album provided the raw, driving, emotional power that was felt on the first album.
To go along with this album release, alt-J converted their website into a crudely animated, quirky game based on a Japanese Playstation game called “LSD.” The gameplay is supported by the opening track, “3WW.” There is no obvious point to the game, but who knows, maybe there’s an Easter egg hidden there somewhere. alt-J is currently on tour, with some of the tour merchandise proceeds going to benefit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), powered by Revolutions Per Minute. According to the alt-J website: “The National Alliance on Mental Illness is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI provides advocacy, education, support and public awareness so all people can experience resiliency, recovery and wellness.”
The closest tour dates this summer are in Kansas City and Chicago, on August 3rd and 5th, respectively. The show in Kansas City is at the famous Starlight Theatre, a well-known outdoor venue — think the Muny, but neither city is more than a few hours away. “RELAXER” is out now on Infectious Music Ltd, and can be found on Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music.