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Alt-J: an interesting take on modern psychedelic rock.

Written By Christian MacManus


Alt-j have blessed us with a beautiful new album, “The Dream”. It’s smooth take on psychedelic rock creates a fresh, yet timeless sound in a growing genre of psychedelic rock.


The album starts with the soothing guitar riff of guitarist and lead vocalist of the band, Joe Newman. In “Bane” the opening track of the album, the tone of the album is set. A relaxed tone is shockingly disrupted by a chant-like chorus of “I sold my soul” – a theme later explored in the album. Later, the familiar and iconic sound of alt-j seems to arrive, with the introduction of foreboding vocals. The song builds elegantly, ending on an electronic inspired sound that is characteristic of the band.


Throughout the album there is an undefinable happy feeling to the work, creating a refreshing sound for the band, that challenges a common trope of melancholy found in the psych-rock genre, so regularly shadowed by undertones and depictions of mental torment.

“Hard Drive Gold” has a theatrical tone, paired with the fast-paced percussion of the song.

Echoes of a timeless country sound solidifies a change in pitch, exaggerating the statement “don’t be afraid to make money boy”. This idea of negative perceptions of capitalism is an issue within the music industry that is not commonly brought to light. Whilst creative explorations of political and ideological issues can often be found, the hypocrisy of this must be questioned. The music industry is fundamentally established to generate profits from artistic expression, as a listener, it must be questioned if this is yet another pseudo-Marxist ploy at generating a profit?


Yet upon deeper analysis of this issue; I have found that the perspective of writers and producers are in alignment with the theory of alienation of the worker. Those responsible for creation of the song, are being distanced from the fruits of the labour, as capitalist intent washes all light-heartedness of creation from the artists themselves, ultimately in the pursuit of profit for the bosses and leaders of the music industry.


A satisfying mellowed dance beat is a distinction of “Happier When You’re Gone”. There is the clever use of riffs, to contrast with the harshness imposed by the percussion. This foreshadows a new tone to Alt-J’s work, one of a moody, yet positive feel that is rarely found in their work. This is achieved using instruments, which compare to a similar mood found in The Smith’s work. The song travels through the speaker’s journey of accepting the loss of a loved one. Defiantly ending on the lyric “I’m happier when you’re gone” this time followed with a chorus of vocals, creating a sound that one can imagine will go down a treat at festivals across the world, when the band finally hits stages again!


“The Actor” has a euphoric sound coupled with an iconic alt-j style. This song delves into the drug-fuelled capitalist hell-scape of California imagined by the writer. The vocal arrangement of female vocals, shocks listeners with a refreshing sound that contrasts with the somewhat un-nerving vocals of Joe Newman. The lyric “he’s never gonna make it in LA” – again signals to the tone of self-deprecation that seems to haunt the album. The band toured America in 2016 at a hard time with former band member Gwil Sainsbury deciding to leave the band; the songs seem to have an underlying sadness associated with America, possibly resonant of the departure of Sainsbury. Whilst staying true to the tropes of psychedelic rock.


“Get Better” allows for the display of the band’s versatility with dreamlike undertones shining through the song. A fascinating orchestration of music is created with this song, with back-up vocal arrangements and the introduction of piano near the end of the song, creating a somewhat old-fashioned sound. The song ends with the use of voice recordings repeating “get better”, this formulates a rather melancholic and nostalgic sound, allowing a level of emotional depth to be associated with the song. The use of this technique also allows for a union of listener and artist, the unproduced sound in the song brings the listeners attention back to reality, from their “dream”.


A personal favourite of the album is “Chicago” – a beautiful dance pop sound defines the song. With a slow-paced beginning inducing the listener to the somewhat cyclical dreamlike sound. The use of rumbling of storm sounds, allows for the metaphorical conception of a “calm before the storm”. This sound is interjected throughout the backing instrumental arrangement throughout the song, creating imagery resonant with R-E-M, the consistent use, allows for ebbs and flows in the cycle. This sound is also associated with a sort of darkness, this graduates into the introduction of an intense riff, coupled with a deep bass. Creating a building feeling, alerting listeners to anticipation of what is to come. They are certainly not disappointed as the song flourishes into an electronic sound, pleasantly unsettling listeners. What I find astounding about this song is the elegant versatility the band has found in mixing an electronic underlayer to the psychedelic rock genre. The album’s dream intentions ultimately move into a lesser explored arena of the genre – the bad dream.


‘Walk a mile” has a stunning sound of relaxed violin intertwined with heavy percussion and elegant guitar riffs, creating a surprisingly summery feeling to the song.

The album ends powerfully on the masterful sound of “powders” – riffs float mesmerizingly throughout the song with a somewhat hippy-ish tone, harking back to ages of “free love” and “counterculture”. The song ultimately solidifies a sensational album, that holds a great depiction of psychedelic rock, with a fresh sound allowing for a small intersection into the band’s inner workings and thought process.


I would highly recommend giving this album a listen. It takes listeners on a dream-like journey, arriving at a conclusionary tone, of not knowing what is next, an equilibrium of spaciness. What is most defining of the album is the sense of the band giving up control, be that in their personal lives or in their musical careers influencing listeners to do the same through their ethereal adventure into psychedelic rock with plenty of room for listeners to project what they found through listening, onto the album. Harnessing the album as their own.

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