Five years after their highly acclaimed album What We Must, Jaga Jazzist have taken somewhat of a left turn with their highly awaited follow up. In One-Armed Bandit's (the collective's fifth album) press release, one member described the music as "Zappa influenced, humorous prog rock," which is quite well realized in several places here, particularly in its odes to the band's influences. A lot of their best playing yet has been brought out as well, and the result is an incredibly technical album that, while a bit harder to take in than their previous works, is nearly every bit as rewarding.
One-Armed Bandit has a dizzying business to it, but it's more fascinating than alienating. There are several unusually memorable melodies strewn about (for fusion, anyway), and the musicianship is predictably spectacular. The heavily Frank Zappa flavored title track starts things off, decorated with a dancing harpischord and clarinet, with more layers gradually tossed on, sporting melodies incredibly akin to Peaches en Regalia. In fact, there's a lot of reference here; Toccata begins reminiscent of Philip Glass and ends sounding like Steve Reich, with a rather minimalist beginning soon morphing into something more dramatic with booming brass, intensifying percussion, and skittering horns carrying it all along. This isn't to say that they're nothing more than reference, as that is more a pushing off point than anything else. Each song's dramatic build up takes the listener to several places, particularly One-Armed Bandit with a charming video game bleeping in the midst of all the fusion madness around the middle mark.
Banafleur Overalt is pure Jaga Jazzist though, carrying an avant garde sound that is dominated with groove, and displaying a progressing musicianship without ever sacrificing that certain catchiness it has. 220 V/Spektral follows in suit, but with layers piling on a bit faster, adding guitars and synths into the mix, eventually climaxing with a heavy rock blowout. Toccata (an outstanding track) slows things down a bit, taking its time to develop and giving each section sufficient breathing room, and simultaneously making it easier for the listener to keep up.
After that, though, the group goes right back to trying to piling on sounds faster than before, and it culminates in some moments that are flat out inaccessible initially. Prognissekongen, namely, is an absolute beast - the first minute alone is inundated with so many melodies all at once that it's pretty overwhelming on first listen, and that's without taking into account the incredible technical skill on display as well. It's definitely challenging, and takes quite a few listens to really digest - it feels like it has more than enough material to last for a good ten minutes, what with all that's going on, and yet it's all crammed into four and a half. This is probably the only song on One-Armed Bandit that will inspire more respect than actual enjoyment, but it's still a fascinating listen nonetheless.
Book of Glass and Music! Dance! Drama! are more straight forward tracks, especially coming after Prognissekongen. Glass has a flow more akin to post-rock, which gives it the familiar sound of the tracks found on What We Must, and Music has a great heavy rock feel it it, which really takes hold of the song in the guitar break around three minutes in. Touch of Evil finishes the album on an appropriately dramatic note, adopting the frenetic display of melodies heard earlier with Overalt and Spektral, teasing through the middle with a pounding rock segment that grows in length until the song's organ and horn led peak.
One-Armed Bandit hardly finds Jaga Jazzist at their most accessible, or even their most subtle. It's very heavy, with incredible performances and bombastic songwriting, but also highly impressive attention to detail and numerous catchy melodies. It's not the band's best, but a good album from musicians this talented is still a good album, and it serves as a great reminder of all the places that fusion can go when so inclined.