Darkside Are Torn Between Convention and the Avant-garde on ‘Spiral’

While Darkside’s Spiral includes moments of virtuosic integration there are other moments where the album seems to lack a unifying aesthetic.

Spiral
Darkside
Matador
23 July 2021

With their latest project, Spiral, electronic musician Nicolas Jaar and multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington, aka Darkside, continue to blend their affinities for beat-driven rock and avant-garde ambiance. As with its predecessor Psychic, the result is at once conventionally hook-filled and sonically adventurous, yet perhaps neither hook-laden nor adventurous enough. This is to say that while Spiral, like Psychic, includes moments of virtuosic integration – songcraft complemented by innovative sonics, innovative sonics contextualized by songcraft – there are other (and more) moments where the album seems to lack a unifying aesthetic.

The project launches with “Narrow Road”, featuring choral voices and percussive accents. Various garnishes add textural and rhythmic flavor to the track, a trebly guitar part a la the discordant/experimental side of Steve Vai periodically slicing across the soundscape. As the piece unfolds, the instrumentation grows more melodic, a synth line surrounded by loud, sustained, staccato, and wispy embellishments. “The Limit” demonstrates the duo’s undeniable gift for bass-driven and dance grooves. Jaar’s voice is alternately clean and reverb-soaked, bringing to mind a more tenor version of Angus Stone’s sultry drawl (with Dope Lemon more so than his collaboration with sister Julia). Decorative fusillades and flurries enhance the piece, which meanders toward a spacious and minimalistic conclusion.

With “The Question Is to See It All”, Jaar and Harrington display enticing deconstructive tendencies, though the duo never fully transcends the traditional templates they’re implicitly eschewing. “Lawmaker” neither commits to unbridled expressionism nor wholeheartedly woos one with earworms. The title track opens with a synthy wash, Jaar’s vocal floating in a mix of acoustic guitar parts and percussive frills. Mid-song the acoustic elements are raised in the mix, the piece transitioning into a hazy welter reminiscent of a jazz-inflected Kansas or a semi-psychedelic Midlake circa Antiphon.

With “Inside Is Out There”, various sounds waft through the sonic field, including piano flourishes, feedback, bass notes, what resembles a wiry cello soaked in reverb, and what might be a bird squawk run through multiple effects. It’s a flux that wouldn’t be out of place on Swordfishtrombones, Trout Mask Replica, or a Harry Partch project. The album ends with “Only Young”, an intriguing mix of ambitiously produced vocals and atmospheres. As the piece progresses, less-produced/lo-fi-ish beats are added – antipodal signatures that, unfortunately, are neither rendered complementary nor convincingly juxtaposed. An attention-grabbing and extended guitar solo a la Richards’ incendiary blast on “Sympathy for the Devil”, Cobain’s anthemic catharsis on Nirvana’s “Bloom”, and any number of Zappa excursions punctuate the mix around the four-minute mark.

The elements of Spiral are provocative, exhilarating, and tasteful. However, they don’t consistently cohere to form cogent gestalts or, again, diverge to the point of achieving a process akin to free improvisation. Hence, Jaar and Harrington fall short of crafting a pop-grounded project or exorcising the specter of Aristotelean unity, which, after two-plus millennia, still has an iron grip on western art and the western mind, despite numerous counter-movements. It’s as if Jaar and Harrington have two ambitions that remain unreconciled, each detracting from the other.

RATING 6 / 10
PopMatters