Darkside, the duo of American-Chilean wunderkind Nicolas Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington, step into the red and blue lights bathing the stage of Room One of Fabric to vociferous cheering from an enthusiastic crowd. It is Jaar’s second sell-out London performance in the space of three nights, both concerts coinciding with the release of Darkside’s debut album Psychic. This time around, Nico is showcasing a different side of his sonic persona, quite literally facing off with his schoolmate Harrington as the pair stand side-on to the audience. From there we go sublime. Distorted guitar chords and the hissing of a synthesiser signifies the beginning of a ninety-minute concoction of soundscapes that at various points evoke the likes of Can, Trentemøller, Pink Floyd – Darkside of the Moon anyone? – and the soundtracks of John Carpenter.
While some ‘live’ electronic performances come across as an overly programmed assemblage of pre-packaged elements that is certainly not the case with this duo. Watching and listening to Jaar and Harrington riff off each another, Darkside’s set has the feel of an extended jam session with heightened intensity, as both performers extemporise and appear to seek out and refine new variations of each track as they go along. Breaks between tracks seem almost incidental as the pair meld together immersive soundscapes that gradually build towards, and hint at, crescendos that often never arrive.
The pair’s positioning on stage allows the audience a clear view of their communication throughout the show, and their signalling to each other to either continue to improvise or launch into the next stage of their set provides the window into musicianship that one yearns for when going to a live show. Jaar’s setup comprises his laptop and multiple mixers, but he also plays piano and sings throughout the show when not furiously manipulating the mixer in response to Harrington’s bluesy guitar interludes, which at times recall Chris Isaak. (For parochial fans of electronic music, let me clarify: that comparison is intended as a compliment!)
Psychic tracks such as ‘Heart’ prove particularly successful in the live setting, as Jaar’s blissed-out cosmic synths duel with Harrington’s psychedelic riffing while Nico’s vocals hover lower in the mix in the same way that they do on many of his productions. Elements of the songs are beefed up for the live setting – the bassline and beat on ‘Paper Trails’ flirts with the sounds one would usually expect to flow from Fabric’s fabled sound system on any given Sunday morning. In general though, this is a gig to sway – rather than dance – to, heavy on atmosphere and driven by the duo’s supreme sense of tempo and intuition. The duo’s musicianship exemplifies how subtle variations can be just as effective as booming crescendos – as David Lynch collaborator and Lost Highway ‘mystery man’ Robert Blake once elucidated, “don’t give it to the audience; leave it to the audience”.
On this occasion, the audience leaves Fabric having witnessed a heavily improvised performance that showcased the intuitive understanding Jaar and Harrington possess of each other as musicians, content that the immense hype that surrounds Darkside is very much justified.