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Unknown Album Review: Alt-J ‘Relaxer’

An innovative journey into the minds of modern alternative rockers.

As part of CMN’s ongoing Music Journalism Course, participants were asked to find a physical copy of an album by an artist they had never heard of. The challenge was to listen and react to the recording without any prior knowledge. 

Relaxer in an innovative journey into the minds of modern alternative  rockers alt-j. A beautiful, confusing, and abstract record that serves as a perfect introduction to the English indie band.

 The Leeds trio, formed in 2007 and received plenty of critical acclaim with their previous releases This is All Yours (2014) and debut album An Awesome Wave (2012). Their desire to repeat the magic with Relaxer was not lost as they continued to work with friend and producer Charlie Andrew.

Originally a quartet — bassist Gwil Sainsburry amicably left the band in early 2014 —  frontman Joe Newman, drummer Thom Sonny Green, and keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton pushed on as a trio and created the ethereal fusion of sounds that is Relaxer.

With no clue as to who they were before buying this record, it was the vinyl packaging of the bands third studio album that caught my eye. The artwork which references the Playstation One video game LSD: Dream Emulator, depicts some sort of futuristic parking garage or highway with the colors of an ultra violet wavelength pixilated along the sides.

I was expecting an electronic Daft Punk-esque record because of the art work, but was pleasantly surprised by the culmination of sounds and imagery that bleed through the album.

Each track on the record presents itself from a different perspective sonically.  With only eight songs totaling just under 40 minutes, front man Joe Newman describes the record as “a great landscape eliciting different emotional reactions.”

Almost too lyrically abstract to understand, the album’s strength is its unconventional combination of sounds. It’s difficult to determine a common theme throughout the album: every song is distinct and vivid.

“3ww” opens the record like a warm breeze from a tropical island. Heavy bass and guitar blend with harmonizing male and female vocals. It feels like an intrusion on a private moment between a couple.

“In Cold Blood” begins like a conventional modern rock track, but a horn section and space video game sounds throw it off course, before an intense crescendo of drums creates an intense climax. The next track, “House of the Rising Sun,” is the embodiment of a meadow filled with wild horses. Its bold in its combination of sting instruments — most notably the banjo that seemingly guides the melody.

“Hit Me Like That Snare” sounds like The Who reincarnated. It also features some random, but surprisingly fitting, Japanese counting. The most contemporary sounding track on the album “Deadcrush” sees Alt J opt for faint hip hop production. Intentionally or not, this track sounds like the theme song to a CW show.

 The last three tracks on the album, “Adeline,” “Last Year,” and “Pleader” are similar in their feeling of calmness, but different in the way they approach it.

“Adeline” is tranquility amongst chaos, like floating on water just as the tsunami hits. “Last Year” is stillness in the guise of nostalgia: The first half of the track is dominated by haunting male vocals that echo, almost sorrowful for a moment that’s past. The second is more peaceful, with buoyant female vocals providing a feeling of innocent hope. In the end the voices come together accepting the reality of the present.

The final song on the album “Pleader” is a serene ending to the epic sonnet that is Relaxer. It’s a medieval battle cry, taking elements from every track on the album, incorporating each sound to stir a new well of emotion.

A band that’s truly unafraid of experimentation, Alt-J released a follow up album of rap and r&b influenced remixes of Reduxer in late 2018, featuring the likes of Pusha T, Goldlink, and Little Simz.

If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.

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