The Norwegian ten-piece Jaga Jazzist’s previous album, The Stix, is one of my very favourite albums of the past couple of years. Apparently they’re the biggest thing around in Norway. So expectations for What We Must were pretty high.
Although the band has a solid sound of its own, its influences are clearly pretty diverse. What else would you expect from a band with ten members who play no fewer than thirty-four instruments (ranging from clarinets to guitars to euphoniums to Omnichords) between them? This isn’t just being eclectic for the sake of it. The wind instruments are not a tokenistic one-off; they play a major part in every track. This stuff works, amazingly well.
The Cornelius influence is clear in their previous albums, but the band they sound most like to me is Tortoise. The same elements — rock, electronics and jazzier elements — are all there, although with different weightings. Well, Jaga Jazzist appear to have followed Tortoise’s more recent direction towards more triumphant melodies. In this album they are starting to sound as much like The Flaming Lips, and one of the tracks — Swedensborske Rom — is particularly Sigur Róssian.
The biggest difference between What We Must and The Stix is that the guitars now proudly take centre stage. No longer just another instrument playing a part like any other, the guitars are now the centrepiece of a track. The whole album has much more of a live feel. Gone are the thoughtful, calculated, choppy Cornelius-esque guitar parts, intricately interspersed with various wind and percussion instruments manipulated with all sorts of electronic trickery. In are sprawling guitar parts with thrashing drums. In some tracks — like Stardust Hotel and Oslo Skyline — it sounds more like a 1970s prog rock album than anything from the 21st century. There are even vocals! Vocals?! Vocals! Infact, there is a minute-long section that is practically a capella. Very surprising.
The more human sound is even reflected in the artwork, once again by Kim Hiorthøy. Gone is the rather more abstract approach to artwork, replaced with large drawings of all the band members.
The band’s more live style is possibly down to the fact that in the run-up to this album, Jaga Jazzist recorded demo tracks for the first time. These demo tracks are included on a bonus CD that comes with the limited edition version of What We Must. It is, as always, interesting to see how these tracks have progressed.
In a way, it is just as well this extra CD is included — even though it is just earlier versions of four of the album tracks. The album only lasts 45 minutes, and a miserly seven tracks! But the breathtaking scope and diversity of Jaga Jazzist’s music makes each minute feel like it’s worth three. If you’ve never heard anything from Jaga Jazzist before, you should seriously check them out. This is one of the very best bands around at the moment.