Trends I am sick of and hope they go away: the abuse of the word ‘literally’ (I figuratively want to run a rail spike through my head), nonsensical fusion food (your matzo ball tacos are gross), making film trilogies into quadrilogies in order to milk every dollar from the consumer, reaction videos (I don’t care about your response to the new Star Wars trailer), and every band making electronic albums. While I have no specific disapproval of musicians experimenting with loops and synths, since around 2010 I get the sense that so many bands are ditching their guitars for laptops in order to play catch-up to the massive influx of EDM appreciation.
The problem with this specific trend is that while certain artists may make great guitarists they make terrible Abletonists, generating the most painfully generic 4/4 120 bpm bore-fests. Bands like Maroon 5, their artistic quality integrity already in question, have gone from generic pop-rock to purely pop and the end result, as has been discussed, is a landslide of pure garbage. Some groups, to their credit, such as Fall Out Boy, have succeeded in developing their electronic sound, and in the process have breathed new life into their dying careers. So there is SOME hope for success in this attempt to play it safe, but the misses far outweigh the hits.
This is important to consider when we now bring into question the latest entry in the Norwegian experimental jazz outfit Jaga Jazzist as they too have tasted the tempting fruit of electronica. Upon hearing this I was quite concerned as I struggled to imagine the typically ornate compositions of Jaga Jazzist condensed into a series of 1s and 0s and FL studio wizardry. I pressed play on my ipod in feared anticipation of bearing witness to the complete disaster of yet another brilliant band cashing in on the overplayed trend.
Starfire, their 6th full-length release, survived the trial nearly unscathed, but before we can all pop our bottles in celebration I might need to direct you to the large asterisk at the end of that statement. While it is true that the Horntveth brothers have succeeded in their computer generated experiment, we must acknowledge that the album is not truly an electronic album, and then we must all then thank the divine heavens above for this as well. Starfire, is what I’d like to call ‘Cyborg-Jazz’, it is traditional Jaga Jazzist style work infused with computerized sequences to create something truly inspirational to those who are smart enough to listen to it.
The opening track, aptly named ‘Starfire’, creaks out the gate with haunting guitar work, creating the illusion of a casual flight through outer-space. In the first few minutes it seems that all is normal in the land of Jaga Jazzist when out of nowhere a flurry of synth wails crashes through your speakers. It is initially jarring, but never off-putting. Additionally, in what might have been the smartest decision in the known universe, the group opted to avoid cheap electronic drum patches work in favor of a real drummer which pays off in spades. The dynamic interplay of acoustic drums in conjunction with the swirling electronic work is simply brilliant and highly rewarding. This continues on into Big City Music which brings the tempo down a bit, but is loaded with atmosphere and thematics. The interplay of acoustic and computer generated instruments creates something truly surreal and unprecedented that had me screaming at my stereo “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?” Shinkansen amps up the midi wizardry, but a more mid-range tempo. Flutes can be heard in the far off distance continuing the cosmological experience.
Oban is the most furious of the five tracks, throwing out vicious synthetic punches that connect against the rest of the band. Prungen wraps up the interstellar experience with a slightly more relaxed approach, easing the listener back to earth after such a whirlwind trip. This is an album that is desperately needed right now. As more and more musicians are quick to drop their guitars, basses, and drumsticks, in favor of macbooks, we need more albums to represent why a computer cannot be a replacement for traditional instruments. There is a special quality to them that can’t be duplicated no matter the amount of effect plugins you add. Jaga Jazzist is not a rebellion against the machine, but accepting its strengths and augmenting them to an organic beast. It is a lesson to those struggling to fight the current trend; you do not need to completely change sides, but merely acknowledge the best of both worlds in order to create something truly spectacular. It is the original song and the remix rolled into one.
Not everything is perfect, but my complaints are minor. I wish there was a greater use of woodwinds as I only heard them briefly in a few songs and when hear they were mixed far in the back making them difficult to notice. Additionally, and this may sound ludicrous coming from me, I would have appreciated a more down-tempo number somewhere in the middle to show how this style of ‘Cyborg-Jazz’ could be done at a plodding pace. These are minor foibles in comparison to the big picture though, and easily disregarded.
I seriously hope traditional musicians take note of the gigantic leap made here in Starfire, and take to heart that you do not need to pick up a laptop to make great music in the 21st century. You can indeed have your cake and eat it too and Starfire provides quite a hefty slice.
Verdict: Buy it
For Fans of: Jazz, Progressive rock, good music in general
Accessibility: Medium, since not everything is in idiot proof 4/4
Highlights: Big City Music