Starfire's Daft Punk-style synth lines scattered inside bold big-band arrangements affirm Jaga Jazzist’s command of style, but confirms the price of crossover success.
If you haven’t used the Visualizer in iTunes lately, do yourself a favor and throw it on while listening to Jaga Jazzist’s newest album, Starfire. There’s something about the pairing of swirling electric orbs and sawtooth synth solos that works very well, but there’s also something fitting about the traditions both media hint at but never fully capture: a time of liquid light shows and truly experimental electronic music. As far as the iTunes Visualizer is concerned, the algorithms are a little too precise, perfectly synced through the BPM analysis at the core of its coding. Its slickness and pre-determination weakens the "trippiness" of the effect.
The same could be said of Starfire, which is presented as a natural next step in the progression of the Norwegian jazz octet’s sound. Lars Horntveth, the band’s leader and main songwriter, also recently moved from Oslo to Los Angeles and for better or for worse, there are marked aesthetic differences between Starfire and the band’s earlier work. These five songs find the band noodling comfortably through Daft Punk-style synth lines scattered inside moments of bold big-band arrangement that affirm Jaga Jazzist’s command of style. Unfortunately, the helping of truly "experimental" moments is paltry; the bulk of the album adheres to traditional arrangements and popular sonic touchstones. Starfire’s pitfalls confirm that the band’s recent crossover successes continue to come at a price of truly progressing their genre.
The album's titular opening begins as a cousin to a Radiohead B-side, but finds a more genuine voice in the second half. There’s something a little too copycat in its maneuvers, though -- "Starfire" establishes a tenor of heavy reliance on cuing the listener rather than taking them down a rabbit hole. "Big City Music" does nothing but add seven minutes of confirmation. The track’s quarter-hour runtime features some interesting ebb and flow between the percussion and synths, including a wonderful display of envelope manipulation in the first movement, but there’s very little here that breaks new ground for the band. Maybe that’s not the point of the record, though. By the end of "Big City Music", Starfire feels like more of an experiment for the band than experimental, an opportunity for a group that has passed its period of shock and awe to ease into a comfortable and accessible place for their brand, which is still one too few traditional jazz bands would dare to occupy.
"Shinkansen" gives the band a much-needed opportunity to reset, revealing a question around the album’s mastering missteps. For the first two tracks, Jaga Jazzist throw everything they have at the listener, but its only when they slow down and let the music breathe a little that it begins to have the desired effect. "Oban", the album’s only true standout track, brings even more clarity to this flaw. Here, the band plays with dynamics more smartly, swirling waveforms and VCO blips fill the aural landscape without cluttering, allowing "Oban" to fully develop. For the first time on Starfire, the synths integrate themselves seamlessly into the aesthetic. The last third of the piece features a dirty driving bassline that gives energetic closure to the motif, which crests into a crushingly beautiful sax solo. "Prungen" gives the sax another opportunity in the foreground before syncopated synths swell under it and soon overtake. The bridge is brutal in the best way, a drum and squealing sawtooth synth duet that marks what sounds to be the album’s only improvisational movement before the Eastern melody returns to bring Starfire to an abrupt close.
The hardest part of writing about music is also the reviewer’s only measure: to balance the band’s most recent output with the state of their art. It is our job, as cultural surveyors, to look at the current landscape and to weigh whether a work is truly a deviation from the status quo, or if it is merely a confirmation. Through the derivation, through the upheaval of what is expected, there the importance of a work is found. Within this framework, 2001’s A Living Room Hush deserved the accolades it got. It was truly a revolutionary hybrid of jazz and electronica and it still sounds relevant almost a decade and a half after its release. 2003's The Stix demands revisits and stands as a fine example of how a band distances themselves from their breakthrough while still keeping their mission. 1998's Magazine and 2005's What We Must both serve as documents of Jaga Jazzist’s reaching outside of its own box, toward the mainstream, at a time when solo artists like RJD2 proved more capable of replicating the band’s powerful early years, but at the expense of human touch and improvisation (to which One Armed Bandit felt like a direct reply).
Which brings us to Starfire. While it is a fine album, it is too easy for Jaga Jazzist to have pulled off. This is clear in the aimless density of the album’s first twenty minutes. The chaos sounds desperate, moves made by a band that is bored with the sphere they’ve come to occupy. Perhaps the issue is in continuing to use the misnomer of "experimental" music to describe their output. The music is surely not mainstream, but it’s not outside of the band’s safety zones (or their initiated listener’s). Nothing on Starfire is risky. There are some very good moments on the record, but it’s just not the same subversion of the status quo that the band has aptly proved they can accomplish. Not that I’d ever decry a band’s decision to move forward from a beloved work, but it just seems that Starifre is not a purposeful eschewing of their back catalog. There is just too much polish and close adherence to standards which never before seemed likely to touch Jaga Jazzist.
In a year full of truly excellent music, when live bands are starting to make their way back onto the stages that samples supplanted them on (a movement helmed by the likes of Kamasi Washington and Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment), Starfire is a missed opportunity. Instead of finding the holes that have yet to be filled, Jaga Jazzist have unfortunately chosen to play it safe. Hopefully, only temporarily.