My pre-holiday preparation ritual includes packing too many books, too few clothes and updating my iPod with a few new albums to take in. As I lay on the beach on my last day in Tossa de Mar, Spain, having read only around 20 pages of the four books I carted across the Channel and half of western Europe with me at the risk of a steep financial penalty from Ryanair (other budget airlines are available), I pressed play on Psychic by Darkside. As someone who considers themselves fairly well versed in musical news, Darkside was a project I was relatively clueless about- the “Daftside” remixes of Daft Punk’s rich, lavish Random Access Memories songs to a screechy, sparse, industrial shadow of their former selves had left me somewhat cold and unwilling to engage with the collaboration between electronic musician and producer Nicolas Jaar and the multi-talented instrumentalist Dave Harrington. However, not one to completely dismiss a band, especially when they have been gaining such plaudits for their reworking of the robots’ modern masterpiece and their debut EP, I gave them another go as the sun beat down and the waves did wash. Turns out Psychic is not for eastern Spain’s golden beaches but, like a few other records this year, for the darkened, moonlit discos of the apocalypse.
In an age devoid of very much subtlety in music, especially in genres like EDM, it speaks volumes for an album that doesn’t simply introduce itself with loud klaxons and inhuman drops of computerised madness. Instead, Darkside’s debut full length bubbles and boils as it introduces us to this weird and twisted soundscape. The opening gambit, the 11 minute “Golden Arrows”, trickles into earshot. There is around four minutes of crackling heartbeat-like rhythms as the song begins to crescendo and then fall back multiple times before anything resembling the main, recognisable beat of the song drifts in. The lush layering of sounds, synths over drum machine beats backed with Harrington’s glittery guitar, as the song fully reveals itself is an experience earned through listening patience, not simply handed to you on a electronic platter. While the duo have yet to show their true intentions, there is a clear sense of the foreboding, disco rhythms in dance/rock albums from this year that have attempted (almost 100% successfully) to give a new slant to the genre – or indeed to reinvent it altogether. As such, Psychic plays well alongside Arcade Fire’s Reflektor and even Daft Punk’s most recent album itself as another entry into the canon of intelligent musicians recognising that there is more to dancing than head banging dubstep or club floorfillers. Jaar and Harrington are Brown University educated after all.
Psychic truly comes into its own when the marching band drumming of “Heart” comes in from the distance and, paired with “Paper Trails”, Harrington’s Mark Knopfler-esque guitar takes precedence over the blurring and purring Jaar synths. I felt an embarrassing sense of guilty pleasure to be wriggling and tapping to a Dire Straits style of playing as I tanned on the beach. It certainly isn’t the most obvious stylistic change up but it is one that works.
The album then becomes even more interesting and cluttered with new sounds, with multiple stylistic, tonal and tempo shifts within each of the remaining four tracks, never mind the rest of its 45 minutes. The suite of “The Only Shrine I’ve Seen” begins with the static running over from the previous track exploding into tribal voodoo rhythms which mellow out with staccato guitar only to then quicken in pace before one of Harrington’s many memorable riffs on the album becomes centre of attention, only for that to then be superseded by all manner of technical trickery that sounds like going through a sonic black hole. As the layers of sound were piled on top of each other, I felt an overwhelming sense of “surely this can’t sound any better”, only for some other unfamiliar but fascinating sound to appear in my headphones.
“Freak, Go Home” is Jaar’s show off moment after the collaborative centrepiece of “The Only Shrine I’ve Seen”. A rock drumbeat is pounded out over bleeps and jungle insect noises as, with subtlety once again being the order of the day, the main synthetic melody eases into the atmosphere like an even more spaced out version of “Everything In Its Right Place” from Kid A. Actually this, coupled with the alien sounding vocal movements, cemented my opinion that this was some kind of Jimi Hendrix-meets-Radiohead mutation, and truly the most enjoyably bizarre album of the year. Album closers “Greek Light” and “Metatron” end on a more contemplative, spooky piano led note as the record once again shifts in tone and tempo. The former, with its eerie, screechy saxophone noise and on and off clicking static felt to me like some great moment of epiphany that had yet to be soundtracked and is a brief but glorious highlight for me. The latter closes out the album as it needed to be- with a groovy bass line and a sexy, shimmering guitar.
Being mainly instrumental, with lyrics sung in a voice that is often barely discernible, it is clear that Jaar and Harrington are using atmospherics to create a more human emotional response to what is fairly unconventional dance music, which is danceable all the same. The tempo can often crawl, but that means when you dance, you simply slink rather than rave. And what’s wrong with that?