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Slow Burn: Darkside's 'Psychic'

On August 3, 2016

by Eli Zeger


Trying to keep up with new records often feels like trying to plug a dam with a piece of chewing gum; the deluge is going to keep happening whether you like it or not, and you’re going to miss some things. The Slow Burn is our column where writers talk about albums they “missed”—which in today’s music Twitter era, could mean they didn’t listen to it in the 5 days around when it came out—and why they regret they didn’t get to the album till now. This edition covers Darkside's 2013 album Psychic.

Not even a year after Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington released Psychic under the guise of Darkside, well after it buzzed and prevailed on every 2013 year-end list with a sense of decent taste, they Facebooked in August 2014 that their project was suddenly “coming to an end, for now.” After they capped this uncertain farewell with a stop at Brooklyn Masonic Temple the following month, their debut collaborative album remained on display at record stores -- I mean, the vinyl for it was still on a display shelf at the Hoboken shop where I bought it, at least.

Magnetized by the luminous, purple blob on the front cover, and retroactively curious about all the acclaim that it’d been flooded with upon release, I was convinced this would be a decent purchase, despite my own slight chagrin about being a latecomer. I’d only heard a little of the duo’s stuff some months prior, while they were still functioning, and didn’t remember too well what stylistically distinguished them. But I was mostly devoting time to rock and metal in 2013, anyways, and the most electronic my taste got was with Oneohtrix Point Never’s frenetic, meatgrinded new age on R Plus Seven, so Darkside’s chiller electronica wouldn’t have really fit within my palate that year.

For an ephemeral career, Jaar and Harrington had accomplished so much together during it. One of their initial escapades went viral, a remix album of Daft Punk called Random Access Memories Memories: Under the moniker of Daftside, they repurposed Daft Punk tracks as analogues to showcase the tones that’d be in full-force on their debut album together -- ambient white noise, spare funk licks, chopped-and-screwed vocals, and much more. Even aside from Darkside, the two have accrued a skyscraping mound of accomplishments respectively, Jaar with his beloved BBC Essentials Mix from 2012 and his Other People imprint (whose roster houses names such as William Basinski and St. Vincent); and Harrington with his ongoing investment in the New York experimental jazz scene and the 12-piece ensemble he currently leads (the Dave Harrington Group), which includes Jaar as a member.

RAMM heard Darkside taking on some of the most quintessential dance stuff. That remix album’s tie-dyed interpretations of Daft Punk bolstered the eventual triumph of Psychic, whose nebulous and metamorphic sound is not unlike the levitating blob that caught my gaze on its front-cover. For all the swimming through genres that it does, however, Psychic’s tracklist is distinguished by a sound that’s, all at once and throughout, kaleidoscopic and intensely unconceited.

Although I wasn't as vested in the album right in the midst of the hype surrounding it, I was cognizant of the duo’s presence and their rising acclaim, like when I clicked on their first sign of (what was at the time) new post-RAMM material. They’d uploaded a clip showing a massive hoard of gray cloud consuming the afternoon sky in Monticello, NY, footage that’s akin to Basinski's visual accompaniment for his Disintegration Loops. The song in this Darkside clip is “Golden Arrow” and it takes 11-plus minutes to unfold, coinciding with the slow-moving pace of the gray cloud formation overhead.

While attentively hearing it in its entirety for the first time, in the context of Psychic on double-vinyl, the celestial hip-hop of album opener “Golden Arrow” subsumed me like the most chilled-out void for light years. Lengthy organ drone segues to a puffy kick doing a four-on-the-floor, while staticky phenomena thunders in the background. What sounds like a violin subdued beyond belief may instead be clarinet, one of the instruments for which Harrington is credited. There's a slight pause at a point, briefly harkening back to the song’s organ-ambient intro -- then a tight hip-hop beat enters, as Harrington loops a silky, palm-muted lick on top. Like zooming past every single car down the Los Santos Freeway, the spirit of “Golden Arrow” is smooth, sultry, and perpetual.

Along with genres, Darkside recall earlier times in textbook music history, especially when they evoke authentic 60’s pop on their back-to-back cuts “Heart” and “Paper Trails.” The former starts with a slow rhythm of floor toms, but then turns into a Beach Boy songs (the walk-down of guitar chords at around a minute in sounds like a direct rip from the Brian Wilson songbook); and Harrington periodically unsheathes a steamy, blues guitar hammer-on sequence. The latter is downtempo soul, as well as one of Darkside’s least instrumentally layered tracks; Harrington’s riffs are bluesy here too, and it seems as if Jaar -- in his slick, bassy croon -- is about to go into the chorus of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” at any given moment.

They time travel to the next decade for the 70’s funk-indebted “Freak, Go Home.” It’s fraught with reversed audio clips, warped church choir voices, and other experimental affectations, but the basis is an unrelenting breakbeat -- the kind of dirtied, bootleg groove that sleeps in the bins at Rock & Soul or Turntable Lab, just waiting to get dug up. Percussion is everything on “Freak, Go Home,” regarding that Meters-y breakbeat as well as its cowbells and other clinks and clanks; it puts the funk in Darkside’s “ambient funk.”

But for all the styles and time periods Jaar and Harrington touch upon, the duo’s own material succeeds in feeling genre-less. “Ambient funk” comes close, still they can’t be definitively nailed. Aside from their various respective side-projects, Darkside aren’t like any other electronica outfit of recent years. I like to think of them as more in line with rock-leaning acts like Stereolab and Tortoise, two rare instances of bands that’ve heralded careers too fraught with disparate styles and creative evolutions to be defined (although “post-rock” tends to be the recurring label for them). Psychic is a final product that’s spare yet inconceivably deep, a bottomless trove of experimental cool. It’s eight songs that showcase the magic that arises from not being bound to one sound. And if that seems like too few songs, you obviously haven’t listened yet; though there’s no shame in being a latecomer.


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