Nicolas Jaar's new album, 'Sirens' is in the hot seat, given a listen and review by Yaseen El Azzouni
It’s not easy to pin Nicolas Jaar’s work to any single genre; the 26-year-old Chilean-American composer/vocalist leaps across genres, and is most well known for his spacious, psychedelic mixtures of rock and dance music with distinctly Latin-American flavours. Sirens is Jaar’s second full-length project, following his psychedelic 2011 solo debut Space Is Only Noise, critically acclaimed collaborative record Psychic alongside guitarist Dave Harrington as Darkside, and a long series of EPs and film-scores since early 2008.
Opening Sirens is Killing Time, a monolithic 11-minute record that steadily builds, and changes in instrumentation over the course of its runtime. Lush, cascading piano flourishes seamlessly give way to soft vocal ballads and metal-drum beats, with Jaar’s signature ambient sampling being ever-present throughout. Jaar has shown his knack for longer tracks before, though none have shown his varied production abilities so well.
On the second track, The Governor, Jaar places heavily distorted drums - positively dripping with post-punk aggression - at the centre of a synth layered neo-psychedelia journey. “We’ve created a monster and it's ready to build,” sings Jaar as he weaves a tale of drug use and hedonism over a beat that traverses acid-house, break-core, and alt-rock before a muted lead saxophone drags the record down into a frantic tribal trance. This outburst of energy is dialed up to ’11’ on Three Sides Of Nazareth, which, clocking in at nine minutes and 54 seconds, forgoes the traditional structure of an electronic dance song in favour of a more slow-building, progressive take on the genre. Heavily overdriven synths and deep, metallic drums serve as the backbone of an electro-punk banger that takes up just below half of the track’s runtime. Following this, Jaar shifts the tone of the track, alternating between the original motifs and piano-driven ambient soundscapes, before finally closing off with an effects-heavy church organ.
Both The Governor and Thee Sides Of Nazareth serve as energetic spikes over the course of Sirens, while softer cuts like Leaves - an ambient interlude which features samples of a young Nicolas speaking with his father - are moments of respite; letting you catch your breath before Jaar drags you bag down into his deep dance grooves.
By far the highlight of the record is No, a hazy mix of reverb-soaked vocals, distorted keyboards, and heavy synths that accompany a Cumbia beat and prominent samples of Chilean harp piece Lagrimas by Sergio Cuevas (an obvious nod to Jaar’s Chilean roots). Singing in Spanish, Jaar draws you into his labyrinthine world, using his voice with a trained versatility that's hypnotic to listen to. Personally I think No is his best work to date, disregarding the fact it may be the only track on Sirens not completely produced by Jaar.Closing off the Sirens is History Lesson, and Jaar starts off by giving us some notes: “Chapter one: We fucked up/Chapter two: We did it again, and again, and again, and again/Chapter three: We didn’t say sorry,” he sings, juxtaposing dark lyrics with cheerful vocals and equally upbeat electro-soul instrumentation, similar to the work of artists like James Blake and Bon Iver. There’s a radio-hit in History Lesson, even if Jaar doesn't have enough of a mainstream following to make it so.
There’s a lot packed into Sirens if one is willing to wait for it, and Jaar’s work defies categorisation, which is why it’s such a joy to listen to. Any expectations you may have going into this record will almost certainly be shattered, and hearing Jaar’s ability to unify such diverse musical influences is sure to catch the ear of even the restrained listener. It’s bleak and hopeful, traditional and experimental; a constant reminder that there’s still room for innovation in electronic music.