Album Review: Darkside – Spiral

[Matador; 2021]

When Darkside emerged a decade ago, Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington were both relative unknowns; the Chilean producer having released one album, Space Is Only Noise, and the Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist being best known as a member of relatively obscure bands like El Topo and ARMS. When they released their debut album, Psychic, in 2013, it garnered them critical acclaim that was followed by rave-reviewed world tours, propelling them to a whole new level of notoriety. Now, eight years on from that, Jaar has released a handful more albums under his own name, two records as Against All Logic, and countless more mixes. Harrington has released a couple of albums with his Dave Harrington Group, featured on albums by myriad artists, collaborated with several more, and played hundreds of shows. Despite all this, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Psychic remains the most beloved and celebrated work from either of them.

Therefore, reuniting after a hiatus to make a highly anticipated second album was both inevitable and hugely risky. They had to do it for the right reasons, and when Harrington said in the announcement of this album that “Darkside has been our jam band… When we reconvened, it was because we really couldn’t wait to jam together again,” the signs were positive. Now, in finally listening to the long-awaited Spiral, that atmosphere of boundless fun and creativity is plain for all hear.

Although, calling Darkside a “jam band” is a bit disingenuous, as that suggests they just noodle around for hours on end with no stakes or goal in mind. There might be some truth to it; it was certainly what would happen in the early days when they would stretch their debut three-song EP into hour-long live sets, and it goes some way to explaining how they’ve discovered so many deep and delectable grooves on Spiral. However, it doesn’t give credit for just how dense and meticulous these songs are; if they came from jams, then they must have recorded one jam, gone back and recorded another over the top, then another, and another for good measure. Even just reading the list of instruments on each song – all entirely played by Jaar and Harrington – can be dizzying. But breaking it down into its composite parts is missing the point – Spiral is an album to experience as a whole, to be swallowed in and transported by.

Now both with several years’ more experience and experimentation behind them, Jaar and Harrington can combine their musical trajectories to guide us to a wholly unique and unexplored area of the space-time continuum. The very first tones heard on opening track “Narrow Road” are metallic rustles, and it feels like stepping through the Stargate into their newly-found universe, perspiration immediately trickling down the back of your neck. This is a very humid, swamp-like world, thickets of sound enclosing you, the air around the instrumentation dense with potential. 

The majority of songs on Spiral are supported by pulsating rhythms that sit on some kind of nexus between funk, jazz and psych. They’re built from rubbery guitar sounds and shimmering percussive elements, the bass slithering in and out like a snake around your ankles and bells clinking from the branches above. Look through the boughs and you’ll see warped and chopped electric guitars cutting across the sky, while all around squelching and elastic synths emerge from the vegetation.

A lot of the lyrics are solipsistic and paradoxical; “Inside of man / a single line”; “The question is to see it all / or decide there’s nothing there”; “Staring blankly at the door / And at yourself”; “Inside is out there”. But, in this sweaty, disorienting world, Jaar has a shamanic air that gives his words a feeling of a truth just out of your grasp, making you want to follow him deeper into this domain. Leaving aside any sense of meaning, his voice is just another malleable sound to be stretched and retextured in Darkside’s hands.

The danceable tangents from Psychic are more or less excised, in favour of a heady, patient approach. On “The Question Is To See It All”, each slovenly beat is like pulling your leg out of deep mud, tactile and tinkling bells animating the splashes as you go. This leads to a clearing, all sound cutting out except a silvery synth and Jaar’s awed voice, and all of a sudden you feel the cool air and sun on your face: the trek has been worth it for this affirming moment of clarity.  

On “The Limit”, they pull us up out of the quagmire with percolating synth sounds, pinging guitar and demanding, engine-like bass until we reach the edge of the atmosphere, only to hit juddering walls of treated synth and sputtering voice, sending us sailing back down to the ground in a sonic swan dive. They seem to take cues from flamenco on “Liberty Bell”, with a light acoustic guitar gliding in the centre, but all around they add that Darkside magic with many unidentifiable knocks and echoes, Jaar’s voice oozing around the stereo field, and a buried field recording of a bell imperceptibly calling you onwards.

The album’s standout “Lawmaker” is a badass groove that sounds like an alien western, the loping, hypnotic guitar line and distant chimes dragging you into a zombified dance. It’s also the one point when Jaar’s words form into a fairly clear story about the titular “Lawmaker”, who’s supposed to be a doctor but has malignant control over his townspeople and the substances they take; an analogy for how big pharma has a stranglehold on modern society, and perhaps the most obvious protest song he’s put out since Sirens.

Darkside prove that they can also do straight-up beauty too. The title track untethers them from a beat and finds them floating in gaseous formation into a polychromatic cloud, and for a moment we’re looking through a wormhole back into our reality where we see candles and unopened mail on the counter; a tinge of sadness in the air as we recall our former existence. The closing “Only Young” is similarly stunning; a prismatic song where guitar arcs across the sky like a rainbow of unknown colours and organ washes through occasionally like a blissful breeze. There’s an air of finality in Jaar’s mewlings and the reticent trudge of the beat that eventually kicks in, making it clear this is the end of our journey. Darkside have led us back to the portal through which we arrived, waving us off with a sly smile and the knowledge that we’ll be back again very soon.