Nicolas Jaar’s Telas Is an Hour-Long Saga of Experimental Sound
The electronic music icon returns for the third time this year to give us his strangest, most fluid music yet.
Originally published on 7/19/20.
As one of the most enigmatic and influential producers in electronic music today, Nicolas Jaar has made quite a genre-prolific career for himself. The New York-based musician has built a reputation as a wildly creative individual, with his output spanning techno, house, ambient, and experimental while still retaining his unique and recognizable approach to music production. His attention to detail has been consistently impressive, whether he’s treating sound with the gentle touch of a feather or attempting to annihilate your headphones with abrasive blasts of glitching noise.
Raised in both New York City and his parents’ home country of Chile, Jaar made a name for himself in the underground dance music scene when he was a teenager. In 2011, barely of drinking age, he released his first album Space Is Only Noise, which he wrote and produced while a student at Brown University. The record won him immediate (and deserved) critical acclaim for its minimal yet subtly detailed production, songwriting, and pleasant approach to sound. His second album, 2016’s Sirens, showcased an astronomical increase in sonic layering and detail, with wonderful sound design and even more ambitious arrangements; Jaar went so far as to incorporate reggaeton, electropop, and even doo-wop into the album. He has also exhibited his rich and masterful approach to house music through the name Against All Logic, a pseudonym under which he has released two excellent albums since 2018. Jaar’s third album under his birth name, Cenizas (or “ashes” in English), went for a much more freeform and ambient sound than most of his previous output. (All of this, and I didn’t even mention his very fruitful collaborations with Dave Harrington and FKA twigs.)
As Jaar’s career has progressed, his output has leaned more and more toward the experimental side, and he has officially dived headfirst into that sound with Telas, his third album of 2020. Sounding like an improvised, hour-long series of short musical pieces, Telas doesn’t so much feel like an album as it does a strange, brain-scrambling experience. The record is split into four tracks, each somewhere around fifteen minutes and each having multiple phases that glide along and shapeshift like some kind of alien amoeba. Electronic glitches, plucked strings, warm synths, and sporadic rushes of percussion are all over Telas, and it makes for an affair that is nothing if not thoroughly intriguing. The title of the album translates to “fabrics” in English, and it serves as an oddly appropriate title for such a fluid project; each musical passage feels like a new backdrop, a different part of Jaar’s creative mind being put on display.
On Telas, Jaar uses seemingly everything at his disposal to craft the most bizarre material he has yet released. Even for him, the amount of sonic detail and fluidity on this album is striking; loud, soft, percussive, droning, melodic, atonal, gentle, and abrasive sounds permeate Telas, and rarely does a sound seem out of place. Much of the loosely structured yet frequently melodic music on Telas sounds heavily influenced by Tim Hecker, except a little more sonically varied and a lot less drone-heavy. And just to enhance Telas’ fluid qualities, Jaar created an interactive website a couple of days before its official release where you can listen to different parts of it in a “liquid state.”
The range of sounds on Telas is downright massive; noisy glitches collide with Arca-like synths (“Telahumo”), lush, repetitive melodies morph and float on top of each other (“Telallás”), and improvisatory saxophones blare over frenetic percussion (“Telahora”). Occasionally, as on his earlier projects, we get a taste of Jaar’s soft, King Krule-like baritone, which tends to add a nice touch of humanity to all the peculiar sounds surrounding it. There’s even one startling moment on the track “Telencima” where, after a brief series of gentle synth notes and bells, an earsplitting, heavily distorted blast of noise suddenly bursts forth, slicing right through the entire mix and thoroughly surprising the listener. (I never thought a Nicolas Jaar album would have a jumpscare, but here we are.) The sheer sonic variety, and the way these sounds are utilized, make for a very interesting listen indeed.
Unfortunately for Telas, there are considerable flaws here that drag the album down. The song “Telencima” is easily the biggest offender structurally; much of the song just goes from passage to passage with little to no rhyme or reason, and the phases are usually so different from each other that it all can’t help but feel thrown together. (Compare this to “Telallás,” which is a much more cohesive and natural-sounding piece that evolves seamlessly across its thirteen-minute runtime.) Additionally, I’m not sure why each and every track needed to be so lengthy; for an album this formless, perhaps splitting passages here and there into individual tracks would have made for a more impactful and replayable experience, similar to Cenizas.
Lastly, what Jaar gains in experimental creativity he arguably loses in emotional impact and memorability; one problem with the album is that it doesn’t really stick in your brain after you’re done listening to it. But that’s not to say Telas is dull in and of itself; on the contrary, the detail and variety of the sounds here keep things fresh for the majority of the record’s runtime. And maybe, for a project like this, the lack of an immediate and lasting impact could be seen as a positive; every time you come back to it, you’re just as intrigued in the moment as you were the first time around. Still, Telas doesn’t scratch the same itch that most of Jaar’s previous releases have, and that is at least somewhat to its detriment.
Overall, Telas is yet another wildly inventive and fascinating project from one of electronic music’s most gifted icons of the past decade. Rife with rich sound design, chameleonic passages, and free-flowing ideas, Telas is arguably Jaar’s most inherently creative body of work to date. Sadly, the record doesn’t always pan out structurally, and it fails to leave as large of an impression as much of his past work. Nonetheless, it’s still very much worth at least a few listens, if only for the endless creativity on display here. It may not be his best, but it’s still Nicolas Jaar, and I’ll take that over a litany of other artists’ work any day.
Listen to Telas on Apple Music or Spotify below.