Relaxer – Unreal/Cities

3 out of 5

Label: Earthquaker Devices

Produced by: Ben Vehorn

Relaxer’s second album, Unreal/Cities, is undeniably a huge improvement over the hazy, wandering Lasers. Lasers would rip out some great riffs here and there, but it never quite felt like it figured out how to marry its 70s rock fascination with guitarist Jamie Stillman’s punk-edged tendencies, and was produced almost too dedicated to its inspiring era in terms of lack of refinement, awash in a bland mix that didn’t highlight much of anything. Interesting, but not especially notable.

Unreal/Cities brings on a new producer – Ben Vehorn – and figures out how to get its band members all on the same page, swirling long passages of tracks in whirlwind synthesizers and just going full-on 70s stoner / prog with things. The songs now feel like they have a reason to exist at their 6+ minute lengths, and Vehorn punches the sound out of the mire so that guitars rip, keys fuzz, and drums punctuate.

…Sort of exposing that Relaxer, unfortunately, still doesn’t have much new to say or do. This is an undeniably skilled band, but the 70s pastiche is almost too accurate now: you could tell me this was a cover group, and I wouldn’t bat an eye. And one of the “defining” characteristics of cover groups is that they don’t sound like themselves: singer Joseph Scott hits a mid-range when singing or shouting that sounds like any given 70s male rock band singer, and all the musical flourishes kick in pretty much exactly when you expect them to. I nod along when a riff hits its stride, but I’m soon not paying attention too much afterwards, because Relaxer hasn’t added anything to that riff to really make it their own, and thus the whole album ends up sitting in that same general mid-range as their singer.

Without a whole bunch of other bands working in this same vein with much stronger identities, Relaxer would probably have a chance. The chops are undeniably there, and from a top down view, they rock; Unreal/Cities surely shows a good sense of focus. But then you put it up against one of those other, same-veined bands and Relaxer gets relegated to opening act status.