A nice attention to detail in the deliverance of the sound as well as the crucial harmonic structures rounded out a cool and pleasant work, but more prominence and direction within the exposed melodic layers would have made it even greater.
While melody successfully enhanced the personality of the music in the role it was given, melodic formation was unfortunately the main hindrance to this album not achieving the level of appeal it could have. It’s unfortunate because melody was also the most exposed and detectable layer in the music. In most cases, the melody was broken up quite a bit into short stints that didn’t last long enough to be fully engaging. The melody, while always being a surface layer, was never quite prominent enough in its quiet dynamics or unclear shapes. This would have been more tolerable had the melody expressed a more desolate atmosphere, or if its role was to be more delicate and decorative. Again, it was just too exposed. Only the second half of the song “Last Year” found a solid amount of intent and strength in the melody. Compare that to the first half of the song if you need a better understanding of my explanations here. The melodies still added positively to the music by their collectiveness and sense, but the overall lack of strong presence didn’t quite match up with the other musical happenings well. This music simply didn’t have enough steam from its most exposed layer to get it over the hill and into greatness.
Everything beneath the melody was constantly kept in tact and engaging from the creative harmonic decisions. alt-J succeeded in both the realm of ambiance and energy here, making great use of pedal tone stagnancy as well as quicker, more involved harmonic combinations. It was great to hear well-crafted and rhythmically interesting progressions within this open, atmospheric tone. The song “Adeline” reached the height of this in the album. The overall coolness in these harmonic structures is what separates this album from other works that focus similarly on ambiance but don’t necessarily take great care of the musical foundation. There were some questionable decisions, such as the aimless countermelody in the guitar on the song “Pleader”, or the timing of when to switch gears of involvement that seemed a bit forced or random at times. This is where the music found its true path to engagement with listeners, though, and it does very well.
alt-J keeps no secret that, even though they spent time working out these songs on the page, it’s the final sound that truly matters the most to them. With the way the music world has progressed and all of the resources available today, this is the new norm for musicians in finding musical worth. Continuing on that path, alt-J have created a very pleasing sonic atmosphere that maintained the relaxing mood and drove the main interest points of the music throughout. The experimentations weren’t without blemishes, such as the several spots without strong builds that lasted for quite a while and lost some shine, or the synthetic textures that didn’t necessarily add anything substantial to what was already present. The two dips in effectiveness were the songs “Hit Me Like That Snare” and “Deadcrush”. Most every other timbral decision was concise and purposeful, which made this a worthwhile listen. There was an exceptional use of acoustic guitar throughout this work, with its fingerpicking style giving a true sense of direction while maintaining serenity. The wonderful brass entrance in the song “In Cold Blood” truly heightened the song’s groove and feel, and the neat transitions and orchestral build in the last song “Pleader” topped off the album quite nicely. The sound certainly achieved its goal of being a subdued mood enhancer, which is important because that may be all that some listeners receive from this music.
This is alt-J’s third studio album, and there’s no sign of them becoming a dominant influential force for years to come. They’ve existed for about 10 years now and haven’t necessarily created anything extremely impactful or all-out unique. By selling this as an atmospheric work, there seems to be more inconsistencies than wanted, and as a work of pure art rock, there’s no real overwhelming strength or passion. This means that I don’t see their fan base branching out or growing at all from this album. It’s a niche, but the existing fan base is very strong, and this was a well-anticipated work that will be enjoyed throughout the year.
Final Score: 132/180