With Alt-J having just announced the follow-up to their 2014 LP This Is All Yours, it’s pretty hard to miss the weird, desolate album art that goes along with it. Eschewing the bright, finger-painted quality of their last cover, the artwork for Relaxer is instead a move in the complete opposite direction, presenting us with something much darker and far more macabre.

What appears to be a body lies dead on the road, head dashed on the pavement beneath an overpass, leaving behind a spray of pixelated blood. It’s a lonely and imposing scene, as the concrete pillars disappear into the gloom, contrasted bizarrely with the fuzz of neon on the roadside. Unless that body is just having a nice lie down, there’s certainly nothing relaxing about the scene at all.

While album are can often be a bizarre, tangential expression of an album’s content (and at other times seems entirely unrelated), this image feels particularly at odds with the first glimpses we’ve heard of lead single ‘3WW’, itself a soft, acoustic number. The entire video for the song, in fact, continues with the bizarre digital imagery, building on the strange incongruity as it goes along (the Relaxer cover image shows up around the 3:25 mark, after minutes of other oddities).

So, where did all this creepiness come from? As it turns out, LSD is the culprit.

YouTube VideoPlay

The Relaxer cover shows up 3:25 into this weirdness

No, not the drug (as far as we’re aware), but instead a bizarre little video game released all the way back in 1998. Anyone who owned a Sony PlayStation back then might have been able to recognise the familiar blurriness of the textures and the blockiness of the models, but it’s doubtful you’d recognise the game itself, which is an obscure oddity released only in Japan.

The game, if you can call it that, sees players enter a twisted, dream-like world, with the only goal being to wander around and feel pretty damn confused. The scene can shift seemingly at random, and there’s no real goal to any of it, with the player simply ‘waking up’ after a handful of minutes and then being told their ‘state of mind’ – whether ‘upper’, ‘downer’, ‘static’ or ‘dynamic’ – based on their time in the dream.

While usually wandering alone, players will sometimes be approached by odd figures that have come to be known as the ‘Grey Man’ and the ‘Abyss Demon’, which stalk the player in various menacing ways and sound about as far from our idea of a Relaxer as it gets.

Interestingly, LSD has an interesting musical history before this; its soundtrack, composed by the game’s producer Osuma Sato, contains over 500 different musical patterns. Following its release, the soundtrack was released on its own, and even included remixes courtesy of several Warp Records musicians.

Much of it still remains a mystery to this day, with a cult-like following of players adventuring through it over and over to discover its secrets. Now, thanks to Alt-J, this weird little piece of software will end up getting its widest audience yet. We’ll stick to Mario, thanks.

You can check out the first half an hour of the weirdness below, and preorder Relaxer here.

YouTube VideoPlay

The first half hour tells you pretty much all you need to know

Get unlimited access to the coverage that shapes our culture.
to Rolling Stone magazine
to Rolling Stone magazine