Darkside turned heads in 2013 with the release of Psychic, its debut album. The collaboration between artists Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington resulted in an album full of radical, propulsive electronic music that broke new ground in the experimental music scene. After more than six years of silence, the boundary-pushing duo has returned with a worthy follow-up. Released July 23, Spiral is a near-perfect masterpiece, taking the band’s genre-bending psychedelic rock sound to a new level.
From album opener “Narrow Road,” it’s clear that Darkside has not lost its edge. Metallic instruments shift over ambient drones, setting the stage before giving way to glitched singing. All throughout Spiral, recognizable sounds such as human vocals and electric guitars are at the mercy of electronic meddling, transforming into surreal versions of themselves. It’s hard to pinpoint the uncanny valley of Spiral without drifting into hyperbole; imagine a psychedelic rock album made by artificial intelligence, played in a forest with no one to hear it. While Psychic was certainly unique for its blend of genres — rock, funk, EDM, ambient, and many others — Spiral seems to defy genre entirely.
If there’s one thing Spiral excels at above all else, it’s setting a tone. Tracks bleed into each other in a way that gives the album a cohesive, physical quality, as if it’s taking up real space somewhere in the world. Transitioning from one song to another feels less like moving between tracks and more like moving between galleries in a museum or landmarks on a road trip. For example, once “The Question Is To See it All” fades out, standout track “Lawmaker” sets in with imposing clanging sounds, as if the listener has stepped into a sinister church. It’s fitting, then, that “Lawmaker” is one of Spiral’s most off-putting songs. Over a hypnotic bass groove, lyrics describe a cultish figure tricking his followers into drinking poison. After a final line recounting someone’s last moments of consciousness, Spiral transitions into “I’m the Echo” without missing a beat. The pacing throughout the album is pitch-perfect, and not a moment is wasted.
While Spiral’s pacing is flawless, the instrumentation is comparatively rough — in a good way. Often, a guitar will stutter and loop, or a hi-hat will lose its place and slip off beat momentarily. These subtle missteps give the album a necessary humanity, elevating it above mere robotic genre-mashing. These intricacies shine on “Liberty Bell,” one of the simplest tracks on Spiral. A clean guitar loop reminiscent of old Westerns gives the song a straightforward groove, but the subtle imposition of a chiming bell, clearest when the track gets quiet, breaks the song’s facade and adds welcome depth.
The final run of tracks on Spiral ensures its quality all the way to the end. At eight minutes and 35 seconds, “Inside Is Out There” is similar to Psychic’s epic 11-minute “Golden Arrow,” albeit much more repetitive. Not every band could pull off a song built over an eight-minute looping drum beat, but Darkside makes it work. As with the rest of the album, there’s always something changing, as if the song is a living organism. “Only Young” then ends the album with a satisfying rock climax, before offering an additional epilogue in the form of ambient guitar-playing.
While Spiral is an excellent record, it stumbles slightly when compared to its predecessor. Yes, it features many improvements in production quality and execution of ideas, but it fails to surpass the heights of Psychic. Spiral has no song as jaw-dropping as “Golden Arrow,” nor anything as dizzying as “Freak, Go Home.” However, these faults are far from damning. The album’s improvements on Psychic are so great that they overshadow the few dips in quality. The songs are structured better, the production is cleaner and more detailed, and the mood across the album is far more varied, along with uncountable small developments in style.
On Spiral, Darkside creates groovy psychedelic tracks, then twists them into fascinating, hypnotic abstractions. To put it simply, there’s nothing else like them out there today.
Contact Alexander Balfanz at [email protected].