Over the last decade and more, the Chilean born and New York based producer Nicolas Jaar has been subtly rewriting the rulebook on what constitutes electronic music and its many myriad forms. Under his own name and a clutch of aliases and side projects – Darkside being the occasional duo of Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington – he’s spun his own unique take on techno, house, ambient, acoustica and everything in between. His full-length debut, Space is Only Noise, used classical instrumentation, musique concrete and Jaar’s own moody vocal to make minimal techno sound like something that could have been played at a basement cabaret club in 1950s Santiago. This effortless stitching together of global influences was all the more impressive given Jaar’s youthful 21 years at the time, not to mention he managed to make music that was at once deeply moody and atmospheric yet also catchy.
His work as Darkside, both on the project’s 2013 debut, Psychic, and on this latest offering pulls off the same feat, combining extended psychedelic grooves, richly detailed atmospherics and unexpected earworms. Jaar and Harrington were students together at Brown University and Darkside has all the hallmarks of a project that grew out of late-night jamming sessions, the kind where experiments are allowed to blossom and no idea is a bad one.
Yet despite the music’s free-roaming and experimental nature, Spiral is a record of intense focus. So much so, that at times there’s a palpable feeling of ceremony about proceedings – as if these two musicians are engaged in some kind of ritual to summon occult forces. Much of this stems from the fact that one of the fundamental influences at play – if you hadn’t guessed it from the name – is prog rock. But like all the notable influences here, it comes through subtly, in the way a groove will develop into a jam that folds back on itself and transforms into a hook. Indeed, Lawmaker with its incantatory lyrics of sinners, and praying crowds waiting for a miracle sounds like some kind of biblical fable, although on closer inspection appears to be inspired by the pandemic and the ensuing information war that’s resulted. “He’s got the cures we need, People rejoice and laugh, They say how hard it’s been, And how easy it’ll be.”
Liberty Bell, the track that was trailed some months ahead of the album has a particularly insistent rhythm to it; the head-nodding bass, gentle snare drums and slide guitar could almost belong on a Western soundtrack, playing out as the lone ranger rides into the sunset. Driven by crackly percussion and an uncharacteristically falsetto vocal from Jaar, The Limit also bears the fingerprints of more 70s influences; Harrington’s guitar borrows just enough from 70s funk and disco to inject a groove with none of the attendant cheesiness. Imagine The Beegees as the house band for a Bordello in the badlands of New Mexico. It really shouldn’t work but somehow it does.
Whereas Psychic was a predominantly groove-led album, Spiral by comparison feels more song-driven. The track times are more uniform, the organic instrumentation is foregrounded; rather than acting as the starting point on which to build a groove. Harrington’s guitar takes centre stage – often appearing acoustic and unadorned; and most of the tracks have lyrics of some description. Despite this, it’s still an album that you’ll want to spend some time with, and let it sink in. This was the case with Psychic for me, but once it did, I found the textured atmospherics irresistible and have kept coming back to it. Because while Jaar and Harrington have managed to craft a distinctive and coherent musical world, it resists easy categorisation. Often you find yourself wondering what exactly it is you’re hearing…psyche rock, minimal techno, dub…hang on, was that a Dire Straits guitar lick in there somewhere?
This mining of unlikely 1970s sources is done without any sense of pastiche, and you get the sense that Darkside feel this era and style is ripe for inspiration. Based on the way they subsume such funky fretwork into their general electronic stew, I’m inclined to agree. Although the lack of a knowing smile, combined with the heaviness of the vibe they lay down, does mean that Spiral can feel like serious going at times. Coming up for air after listening to the record in its entirety (surely the only way to enjoy it) can feel like emerging from a dense fog, perfumed with fumes of hashish and nag champa. But if you can set aside the time and prepare your mind, you’ll be rewarded with a heady-trip – a voyage that reveals new details and unexpected turns on each visit.