Chilean-American electronic artist Nicolás Jaar finds energy in the unexpected. The internationally acclaimed DJ-turned-composer-turned noisy bass experimenter manages to elude expectations with every project he releases. Jaar and New York multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington craft loose, improvisational dance music as a duo, under the moniker DARKSIDE. In the eight years of silence since their standout 2013 release Psychic, it seemed at times that the collaboration was lost to the sands of time. However, DARKSIDE’s latest, Spiral, is an ambitious return to form for the elusive group. It finds Jaar and Harrington sharpening the crepuscular soundscapes of their early recordings, all the while embracing a globetrotting sonic palette and increasingly subtle arrangements.
DARKSIDE formed in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2012, while Jaar and Harrington were both studying at Brown University. Connected by their mutual friend, saxophonist Will Epstein, the two started working on music together. Far less structured than most of Jaar’s undertakings, DARKSIDE is by far the producer’s most freewheeling endeavour. “From the beginning, DARKSIDE has been our jam band. Something we did on days off,” Jaar says in a press release. “When we reconvened, it was because we really couldn’t wait to jam together again.”
As a fixture of the Northeast’s thriving underground creative community, Harrington has played with everyone from Genesis P-Orridge to The Sun Ra Arkestra. In the studio, his adaptability and dexterity clearly rub off on Jaar, a musician for whom borderline scientific creativity is the norm. DARKSIDE is driven by club-ready, sequenced grooves, but Jaar allows himself to loosen up and shed the precision that makes his other work so untouchable. For evidence of this, watch the project’s 2013 Boiler Room NYC set, which finds Jaar moving and swaying behind his laptop like a funk drummer settling into an especially jazzy pocket.
Nocturnal psychedelia dwells at the root of every DARKSIDE track, but where Psychic put a chic, contemporary spin on the sounds of no wave and cowpunk, Spiral plays into the tropes of krautrock and acid-fried prog. On “Lawmaker,” a sparse, pounding groove lays the framework for churning, palm-muted guitar riffing that wouldn’t sound out of place on a CAN record like Flow Motion or Monster Movie. “He’s wearing a doctor’s coat but in his hand is the ring of a lawmaker,” Jaar seductively moans in an ominous tone. Meanwhile, on “The Question Is To See It All” and the title track, the band put a digitized spin on the melodies and sensibilities of 1960s bohemian folk. While it’s certainly cliché to compare a project called DARKSIDE to Pink Floyd, many of Spiral’s best moments recall the far-out sounds of Syd Barrett. If Psychic begged to be blared in your city’s most dauntingly pretentious record shop, Spiral feels more suited for looking out at the stars on a rural commune.
While Jaar and Harrington might be making music for a demographic that listens to hip radio stations like NTS and Dublab, their free-spirited attitude is what keeps DARKSIDE’s music so timeless. With lyrics that read like the synopsis of an Alejandro Jodorowsky film, a freaky, desolate spirit courses through the subtext of Spiral. “I’m turning around / No I can’t see the ground / Don’t sow what you reap / Don’t feel what you see,” Jaar sings over the discombobulating intro of “The Limit,” before the track erupts into the one of the record’s most propulsive cuts. Adopting the same skittering cadence of an Against All Logic track like “This Old House Is All I Have” or “Now U Got Me Hooked,” its inky instruments swirl until they burst into creaky ambience. The song’s arc leaves you wondering how exactly these two are able generate such simultaneously ethereal and dissonant noises.
Where Psychic’s standout songs were those that embraced surging beats, Spiral’s highlights are those that allow the instruments space to breathe. With its shimmering guitar harmonics, the latter portion of “The Question Is To See All” hovers somewhere between the sounds of post-rock and nightlife-friendly ambient music. Harrington’s technical plucking recalls his cascading work on the album First Flight with Chris Forsyth, Spencer Zahn and Ryan Jewell. Coupled with Jaar’s poetic lyrics about realities that leave you vacant, the song plays like a work of magical realism repurposed for the internet age. On the closer “Only Young,” surprisingly sunny organ chords set the scene for a manipulated melody that would fit on an album by The Zombies or Harry Nilsson. Although Spiral’s influences and writing styles are all over the map, the album is tied together by a bleak tone that evokes walking home from a warehouse party in the final moments of darkness before the emergence of dawn’s bleary light.
A lot has changed for Jaar and Harrington since Psychic came out, and both artists are now in their 30s with more musical experience and variety under their belts. This maturity shines through on Spiral, an album that nonchalantly shifts between textures and genres. As wiry acoustic guitars waterfall over gongs and Gregorian chanting on the opener “Narrow Road,” it’s clear that DARKSIDE are willing to break a mold that already knew few bounds. “Father, Heaven, come and see / The warning of illusion / Brother, Lawless: Cover Me,” Jaar’s vocalizes, his words processed over oblique percussion as the track ramps up. On Spiral, DARKSIDE push their limits, all the while honing the distinctive sound that made the project so singular to begin with.
Ted Davis is a culture writer, editor and musician from Northern Virginia, currently based in Los Angeles. He is the Music Editor for Merry-Go-Round Magazine. On top of Paste, his work has appeared in Pitchfork, FLOOD Magazine, Aquarium Drunkard, The Alternative, Post-Trash, and a slew of other podcasts, local blogs and zines. You can find Ted on Twitter at @tddvsss.