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Review: Darkside’s Spiral Is a Tapestry of Cool Sounds in Search of Direction

While Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington assemble an array of mesmerizing sounds on Darkside’s Spiral, a larger vision eludes them.

Darkside, Spiral
Photo: Jed DeMoss

Darkside’s debut album, 2013’s Psychic, is notable for its sense of mystery. A collaboration of electronic musician Nicolas Jaar and multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington, Darkside exists at the intersection of rock and electronica, and their debut’s concept was more compelling than its execution. The duo’s long-awaited follow-up, Spiral, once again delves into a nebulous realm of wandering instrumentals and confounding ideas, but it’s denser than its predecessor, sometimes getting lost in its own crypticness.

Harrington’s guitar work throughout Spiral volleys between melodic and dissonant, between warm and cold, his lively filigrees dictating the tone and direction of each song on the album. The low-down, purring riff on “The Limit” is spectacularly catchy, while the acoustic freak-out at the end of “Liberty Bell” is startling in its virtuosity. Multiple guitar lines are layered on top of each other throughout Spiral, interlocking and clashing on the standout “Lawmaker” and wailing like sirens on “Narrow Road” and “I’m the Echo.”

Despite the impressive guitar shredding, though, Spiral doesn’t amount to much more than a tapestry of cool sounds. Lyrics are more prominent here than on Psychic, at times profound, as on “Lawmaker” (“One by one, they stopped seeing the colors they used to see”), but frequently opaque, as on “I’m the Echo” (“You’re the lesson in the hall/I’m the echo in the room”).

There are recurring threads that crop up across the album’s 10 tracks, with repeated mentions of doors, fables, rings, and looming authority figures. Unfortunately, these motifs never congeal into a cohesive narrative, so they end up feeling like a distraction from the album’s instrumental showmanship. When we’re finally allowed to go fully out into the ether with Harrington’s guitar and Jaar’s synths and percussion, as on the eight-minute “Inside Is Out There,” the result is satisfyingly immersive.

In contrast to the flat-footed, muted drumbeats of Psychic, the percussion on Spiral—from the splintering drum hits of “Narrow Road” to the rattling and clinking on the closing “Only Young”—is placed in the front of the mix. This gives Darkside’s music more structure than in the past, but it still doesn’t lend all of the discursive jamming a destination or purpose.

This brand of post-Radiohead rock has been done before, and better by, for example, the Dutch group Weval, who succeed at melding enigmatic, transcendental lyrics with distinctive electronic-rock grooves. But while Jaar and Harrington assemble a worthy array of mesmerizing sounds on Spiral, a larger, more compelling vision eludes them.

Label: Matador Release Date: July 23, 2021 Buy: Amazon

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