Alt-J don’t play by the rules – the rules bend around them.
Label: Infectious Music
Released: 2nd June 2017
Alt-J aren’t your average big band. They’ve got all the trappings – headlining major arenas and topping the bills at major festivals. When they drop new music, the internet reacts accordingly. Radio stations add it to their playlists. Words are written. People listen.
But at the heart of it all sits a band who don’t conform to the expected norms. Not musically, at any rate. Nobody else sounds like Alt-J. Few others are as daring, either. Perhaps Radiohead, with their blank cheque of being able to record whatever they desire and still receive automatic acclaim, could be said to push the boundaries of mainstream acceptance in a similar fashion, but it’s easy when you know there’s little on the line.
Standing on their own, Alt-J don’t play by the rules – the rules bend around them. The most immediate moment of ‘Relaxer’ might feature a string of binary as its ear-worm refrain, but there’s little digital about their third album. While those peers churn out carefully crafted robotic bangers, coated in the sheen of ones and zeroes, Alt-J’s music feels like a living, breathing, growing organism – it’s intertwining vines creaking as they wrap themselves around a world lit by the cold blue glow of a billion tiny screens.
Far from a carefully levelled out affair, ‘Relaxer’ drifts and skips around its family tree, drawing inspiration from wherever it feels fit. ‘In Cold Blood’, all powerful chants and forceful stabs, is definitely the battering ram that will placate the machine’s desire for something immediate, but it’s far from a comprehensive preview of what’s to be found elsewhere.
Those moments of focus come in different shapes and sizes. ‘Deadcrush’ is a bass heavy, vibe surfing beast – so typically Alt-J that, for them, it makes perfect sense. ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, meanwhile, is part scratchy, lo-fi, primal punk, part retro fairground ghost house shudder. Both sit together on the same record. Both feel like they belong.
Opening track ‘Relaxer’ is even more compelling. Offered up as the first public taster of ‘Relaxer’, it packs getting on for two minutes of instrumental before it even begins its delicate, folky advance. And yet, by the time Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell appears to deliver one of the most magical guest spots in recent memory, it feels like a legitimate moment. Something which totally belongs on the wider stage, while in the exact same moment breaking every accepted rule of three minute something bangers with a repeated chorus and a thick layer of uniform polish.
It’s the perfect vignette for what Alt-J represent. While everyone around them strives for the prize via accepted, well-worn roads, one band appears through the undergrowth, reaching that final destination by routes previous unmapped. Not by design or deliberate refusal to play the game, but because they’re following their own path – and in doing so creating something that could only ever work if they completely give themselves to where the music takes them. There are no half measures to ‘Relaxer’. Any suggestion that someone in a suit has asked them to ‘add a couple more singles’ would feel outlandish at best. So rarely does such artistic purity result in the biggest rewards, and yet from here Alt-J’s continued rise feels impossible to slow. Sometimes – just sometimes – a little faith pays off. Who wants to be average, anyway? Stephen Ackroyd