Darkside - Union Transfer, Philadelphia - Gigs - Reviews - Soundblab

Darkside - Union Transfer, Philadelphia

by David Bruggink Rating:9 Release Date:2012-08-06

My intrigue was piqued as opening act High Water took to the stage, his face covered in shadows created by the strong backlight, and let loose some melodic saxophone soloing, layering and looping to provide a backdrop for his electronic beats. My interest began to fade quickly, though, as I realized we were not in for 30 minutes of experimental saxophone music, but rather staid indie-pop. Though he belongs to Nicolas Jaar's abstruse Other People label (see website with incredibly hard-to-read font), High Water (real name: Will Epstein) delivered a handful of songs that stayed within the bounds of pleasant, innocuous, and not especially interesting.

Will's raspy caterwaul reminded me of The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser at times, and he clearly has talent for juxtaposing sounds; his saxophone, for example, provided an enjoyable texture alongside his choices of indistinguishable drum kits and ambient keyboards (as a side note, an off-the-cuff performance of "Careless Whisper" would have been awesome, but no such luck). The Beautiful Moon, his EP released last year on Other People, also reveals his predilection for unexpected field recordings and manipulated vocals. But for an artist trying to straddle the line between capable producer and emotive performer, he didn't quite achieve either. And while building his songs from a more diverse sonic palette would be beneficial, what was really missing was the hooks, and hopefully, he will find them soon.

The atmosphere was energized with anticipation as Darkside took the stage, each band member impressively reserved as he took position at his respective station: Nicolas Jaar surrounded by laptop, keyboards, and midi controllers, and Dave Harrington, among a variety of effects pedals and, of course, his electric guitar. They chose to begin subtly, capturing the audience's attention with layers of melodic drones and feedback before focusing in on their signature genre-crossing sound: their mastery of joining minimal techno and blues guitar, which seems potentially terrible on paper, was breathtaking at times.

Both Harrington and Jaar were skillful in their choice and assembly of sounds, ranging from conventional snare hits and hi-hats to industrial clangs and clicks, epic pads flecked with imperfections, and palm-muted guitar riffs similar to The xx. Harrington's playing was uniformly impressive, at times locking rhythmically with Jaar's beats or adding lyrical, reverb-soaked riffs. Tracks like 'Heart' and 'Paper Trails' were stretched beyond their album length, becoming outright pumping, crowd-rousing tracks, delivering on the potential hinted at on Psychic.

To hear the metamorphosis of the album from headphone to club music was exciting, although the ubiquitous bass was actually so loud that it blocked out some of the more interesting licks being played by Harrington, as well as the immersing sound design by Jaar that made Psychic so compelling. And by the end of the evening, the dynamic formula of each song had become more or less predictable: start off with an atmospheric minor chord; let it hang like a melancholy cloud over the next 10 or 15 minutes; add skittering percussion, crisp synthesizers and pads, and gradually increase the volume until coming back in with floor-shaking bass. But It's a formula they've perfected: the music made me feel like a steely-eyed, determined protagonist on a mission, not unlike Ryan Gosling in Drive.

Their delicate balance between confidence, melancholy, and propulsive rhythm is something most techno producers shoot for, and only rarely attain. The fact that Darkside are so adept at reaching that coveted goal, and sustaining it for a whole evening, is proof of the intrinsic success of their collaboration.

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