For a band about to headline London’s O2, Alt-J are not exactly playing it safe with their new album. There are no precision-tooled hits here on Relaxer, the group’s third record, only eight strange songs that move from acoustic abstraction to punishing beats laced with strings and digital distortion.
The previously released 3ww opens the album, beginning with almost two minutes of muted percussion and Eastern-sounding guitar; vocalist Joe Newman isn’t even heard until after keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton and Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell have sung a line each.
This is only the tip of a very diverse iceberg, though; Hit Me Like That Snare is deliciously unhinged, with drums and messy electric guitar stuffed into opposing channels while a sample of Japanese speech echoes in the centre. Alt-J might be playing some of the same stages as Ed Sheeran, but this is about as far from Galway Girl as it’s possible to get: “Fuck you/I’ll do what I wanna do,” the group sing over feral, lo-fi guitar. Elsewhere, Pleader begins with footsteps and a minute of near-silence, before guttural synth gives way to flute, organ and a choir, like Burial attempting to cover Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden.
The simpler moments on Relaxer are far more successful – and less self-conscious – than their work on 2014’s This Is All Yours, too: their version of House Of The Rising Sun is almost completely changed from, say, the Animals’ version, anchored entirely by strings and rippling acoustic guitar; as the album reaches its end, the six-minute Last Year, built from only nylon-string guitar, cor anglais and intertwining vocals, comes on more like a modern classical piece than something that would usually echo around the former Millennium Dome.
Three albums in, then, Alt-J seem to have discovered their identity, an eclectic one at that; and perhaps join Radiohead and Arcade Fire as the kind of act that can play arenas while still stretching their creative boundaries.