On What We Must, their 2005 Ninja Tune debut, proggy and post-rock undertones transformed their woozy watercolour signature into something terribly catchy and even singalong at times. The vocal washes, amplified guitars and generally song-like structures set this one apart from the roving experimentalism that defined its predecessors. And it's the same guitars, drums and rock sentiment that greets you on Starfire, Jaga Jazzist's latest offering on Ninja Tune. At first, that is—another What We Must this certainly is not. With Starfire, we're back to Jaga Jazzist's surprise tactic, only with more bolshy, neon-LA influence added to the mix.
Take the lead track, "Starfire." It starts out dreamy and loose before spooky UFO synths reset the tone a little—all typical Jaga Jazzist tropes. Then the jazz nodes creep in. And suddenly, like a crack of lightening, electronic harshness slices through the pastel allure. It's jarring without being too unsettling, like little electric shocks readying you for the squelchy bass breakdown that nobody saw coming. This progresses into something almost Daft Punk-like before petering out into more native—albeit electrified—Jaga territory. Then, as the electronic din subsides, we finish on a final tumult between elevator jazz loveliness and more of those squealing electronic lightening bolts.
At five tracks long, Starfire is a short LP, but these are all rich, heavy vistas. You find yourself stumbling through a sprawling mass of instrumentation on "Big City Music." Sometimes it works, but for the most part it feels awkward and out of place. "Shinkansen" is a delightful reprieve from the showiness that's prevalent throughout. It's poised and gentle and offers the most harmonious self-remixing element here: a spacey, sci-fi transition that doesn't seem to fight against Jaga Jazzist's natural grain, as it does elsewhere. "Oban" tries to weave the two worlds together, and does a better job than "Big City Music," but both tracks leave you spinning—there's a lot to take in here.
Starfire was never meant to be consistent, but in opting for something clever and innovative, Jaga Jazzist have sacrificed what made What We Must so memorable. Starfire won't get stuck in your head for days, but you could spend weeks unpacking it and still never quite get to the bottom of it.