One Armed Bandit brings unique mix of music

Grant Peeler, Web Team

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The 2010 album release One Armed Bandit, from Norwegian group Jaga Jazzist is an interesting beast, in that it stubbornly refuses to be pigeonholed into a single genre.

Any one of the thousands of overly specific subgenres could be combined to get something close (Nu-Jazz with Progressive Rock Influence? Electronica-Neoclassical fusion?) But really, that would only cause confusion.

For the moment the focus will be on answering a single question: “Is this album worth listening to?”

Yes. Yes it is.

The first thing that hits the listener is the strangeness of the first track: A gong, followed by a single trumpet. After this, the album begins in earnest, with its title track, “One-Armed Bandit”. A single repetitious background beat is overlaid by a synth which then expands to include, trumpet, clarinet, and various distorted strings.

 What’s featured in this track is pretty much exemplary of the rest of the album. A simple tune, expanded in complexity and instrumentation, over about seven minutes.

With tracks this long, the two pitfalls of the album are either too little or too much variation from the norm. Keeping this in mind, we can juxtapose two tracks to show the best and worst of the album.

“Toccata” uses a constant foreground with a shifting background, managing to hold interest without becoming overly loud or energetic. If anything, this song would be at home in a classical piece, with the smooth progression and fantastic counterpoints. The combination of instruments gives the track an almost crystalline feel, with intermittent xylophone notes bouncing off of a low sounding bass.

“Music! Dance! Drama!” is a fairly poor song, by comparison. The tone it starts with is not terribly interesting, and its evolution is somehow both subtle and ear-grating. At about the 1:30 mark, the song rises in energy without any proper buildup, only to fall off again to the starting beat, made slightly worse by the addition of a harp plucking away aimlessly.

 The greatest sin this track makes though, is its roughness. Music is thrown at the listener, in the hope that some of it might work.

The ending track, “Touch of Evil” does give the album a good sendoff. The ambient sound of a helicopter overhead gives way to a fantastic baseline and a solid atmospheric tune. The synth-strings counterpoint the lows of the song cleanly, and when the energy picks up, it does so with a much appreciated change of background.

The timing of the tempo switches are this songs biggest draw. It never feels boring, always hitting the middle ground of subtly and novelty. The final quarter of this song is sent off with a haunting cathedral organ taking the forefront, tying together everything heard beforehand, culminating in a fitting end for a very ambitious album.

One-Armed Bandit is an album that takes a large amount of risks, in instrumentation, tone, and composition. When it fails, it becomes a cacophony of discordant instruments and ear-splitting noise. When it works, though, it becomes a phenomenal experience, where each mesmerizing moment gives way to another dazzling shift in tone or pace.

 In the highs and lows of this album, though, it can always get credit for one thing: there’s nothing else quite like it

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