Release Date: Sep 30, 2016
Record label: Other People
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock
Like his one-time collaborator Brian Eno, the prodigiously talented Nicolas Jaar possesses a rare sense of texture and space that makes his music especially tactile. He channels this skill brilliantly on Sirens, his second-full length album. Shifting modes from calming, spiritual ambience to corrosive, industrial-inflected dance music, Jaar mirrors the elemental uneasiness that many of us are feeling this year.
It’s become increasingly apparent that the Chilean-American Nicolas Jaar doesn’t like being categorized. Even the earliest releases from this enigmatic musician, on Wolf + Lamb and Circus Company, had a disregard for stratification. For Jaar, house and techno were just hues to apply to a kaleidoscopic palette. His use of found sounds, dub studio techniques, and chiming guitars all contributed to a style apart, a category of one.
Nicolas Jaar's music exists in liminal states. He sublimates rock music into ethereal ambience. He writes songs that hang in the air and transcend conventional structure. It's a talent that makes his music relatable in spite of its fleeting nature, because Jaar leaves enough words blank or spaces empty for you to fill them in.
There are only about 45 seconds left on Nicolas Jaar’s new album Sirens when something astounding happens. Heralded by a selection of drums and birdcall synths, a gospel cry arrives, shrouded in distortion and punctuated by sharp arrhythmic drumming. The most useful words to describe this are the silliest and most hyperbolic: awesome, transcendent, timeless or more accurately, out-of-time.
The saxophone is the most recognizable of band instruments. In 2011, Bon Iver’s and Destroyer’s records showcased its uses to millennials. In 2016, it’s grown darker and more jaded in the independent music spectrum. The saxophone takes a song like ‘The Governor’ and turns what could be a dancefloor cut into something decaying and glaring.
Nicolas Jaar has been releasing hordes of material for years; under different monikers; sparingly as part of lengthy, disparate projects like his ‘Nymphs’ series; along with Dave Harrington in their joint Darkside venture and through his innovative radio network. To say the New York-based Chilean-American has been busy since the release of his first and only LP under his own name, 2011’s ‘Space Is Only Noise’, would be an understatement. Until now though Jaar, ever the perfectionist, wasn’t satisfied enough with any one project to proclaim it the follow-up, a genuine full-length.
In the five years since Nicolas Jaar dropped his widely acclaimed and influential breakout Space Is Only Noise, the Chilean producer has released collaborative records, scored films and released a series of incredible 12-inches, Nymphs I through IV. And yet, for all of the sonic breadth of that material, none of it quite prepares listeners for Sirens. There's almost a full minute of near-silence before glass shatters and a piano cascade bursts like fireworks on opener "Killing Time.
America is flush with loud warnings. It’s noisy and chaotic, a crumbling facade of rights and wrongs and gun wounds; that grows all the more apparent as the presidential election inches closer. During his DJ set at Big Ears this past March, Nicolas Jaar capitalized on that governmental unease. Wall Street calls boomed and a race riot speech played, Jaar welding financial inequality with rampant discrimination particularly well.
The Chilean-American sophisticate Nicolas Jaar is often derided by people who like their electronic music robust and to the point. Understandably, really – his noodlings often make James Blake sound like AC/DC . But Jaar is something of a left-field superstar. On his 2011 debut album, there was at least a semblance of a slow club-music pulse, while last year’s Pomegranates consisted of 20 glitched-out instrumental sketches.
In the last few years, several artists from very different backgrounds (Chet Faker, Jamie xx, Alt-J, James Blake et al) elided into a new, unnamed music movement with a very specific set of criteria: wistful electronic soundscapes, brooding men with a façade of pensive rumination, glitchy computerised vocals and lots and lots of strong, reverberant bass. Not only is it really damn catchy, but it also makes it easy to project your own experiences onto and feel like a heartbroken protagonist of a really hip, sad movie - I think that’s what makes it so seductive and gets so many people hooked: it’s accessible, contextually non-specific, lush on the surface, empty beneath it and you can appropriate it as an extension of any feelings or memories of your own. Nicolas Jaar has been a strong representative of the genre but - as if unsure if his musical endeavours were aiming high enough – he decided to unleash his ambition upon a new project called Sirens.
It begins with silence. Then noise baseballs break the windows of your mind as rainbow notes flourish in downward patterns before forming a resting bed of ambient beauty on the floor you are standing on. At 5:00 into track one of Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens when most artists would consider the sketch complete, his voice first appears. But rather than the low tone bass rumble we are used to, he chills and stomps in his rarely used falsetto.
Nicolas Jaar 'Sirens' (Other People)Mystifyingly, Nicolas Jaar is looked on with suspicion in some quarters: some people are confused that a man who can create cavernous dancefloor epics is also on a quest to experiment, manifesting itself in work that’s brittle, emotionally charged and rich with nuance. Since his 2011 debut album ‘Space Is Only Noise’, the Chilean has collaborated in spacey synth-rock duo DARKSIDE and released a movie soundtrack LP (the film it was created for, Dheepan by director Jacques Audiard, went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2015). He also recently put out a series of lavish techno EPs on R&S, too, suggesting that Jaar’s only problem might be that he’s too damn clever.
Plastered in bold white letters on the cover to Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens are the words “YA DIJIMOS NO PERO EL SI ESTA EN TODO” - which translates as “We already said no, but the yes is in everything” – making clear, before even a sound is heard, the phrase’s thematic significance. Taken in its historical context it underscores the subtle, constantly political bent of the Chilean-American’s work; it refers to a phrase used by young Chilean artists and activists in the late 1980s, highlighting the contradiction inherent in the fact that to vote “No” was to answer “Yes” to the question of ousting military dictator Augusto Pinochet. Sirens, above all, is a musical and political exploration of this contradiction—of the division between “yes” and “no,” past and present, Chilean and American, curator and composer—and the creative possibilities that open up in the space between.