Arca - Arca
In just 5 years, Venezuelan producer Arca carved out a unique space in the bubbling avant-garde electronic genre. He solo-released: two brief EPs, contorting the principles of rap and R&B to the point of near unrecognizability; three single-track “mixtapes”, showcasing a sense for world-building and cohesion; and two LPs, Xen and Mutant, which, while grander in scope and technique, lacked structure. Still, Arca seemed to be crafting something entirely his own. At its most flamboyant, an Arca track can sound like “In the Hall of the Mountain King” through the filter of an acid-fueled nightmare in which a classical orchestra melts into a strobe-lit nightclub. Elsewhere, horror film soundtracks are channeled and built upon warbling IDM beats to construct disgusting alien environments, lingering just long enough you don’t spook and flee. The recipe of a quintessential Arca track can be broken down thusly: mesh two seemingly paradoxical music forms (IDM & avant-garde; classical & trap), shove the resulting product into a meat grinder (don’t forget to include human meat!), and enjoy alongside a screening of Cronenberg’s The Fly. Check out any Jesse Kanda directed Arca video (or the cover to Xen and Mutant for that matter) for a living example. As you can perhaps tell, it’s difficult to describe Arca’s past work without entering into its creepy evocations. The structure of each track is certainly there, but the sludge and static is what takes precedence, that is, until you give yourself over to the horrorshow. No wonder the artist was endorsed and employed by the stunning, trailblazing lineup of FKA Twigs, Kanye West, and Björk over the years.
The level of diversity on display throughout Arca’s work was shocking given how niche his sound had become and in so brief a time. With his last LP, the behemoth, Mutant, it seemed Arca’s sonic apex had been reached simply because he had honed a sound, raised it, and then tortured it to death. At the point that manipulated sheep bleats sound at home on a track, directions on how to newly challenge listeners may be exhausted. So, apparently taking the advice of Björk (which of course you do if given the opportunity), Arca decided to introduce a new instrument to his arsenal of indelicate production: his voice.
On the self-titled Arca, Alejandro Ghersi installs his own singing as the major focal point, not only featuring it on nine of thirteen tracks, but recording it in such a way that we feel like we are sitting inside his mouth. Saliva is swallowed. There has always been a carnal undertone to Arca’s music and videos, but here that specific quality is fully embraced. Juxtaposing Ghersi’s anguished singing quality alongside a discomforting and often sinister production style, the lone figure appears a bruised and beaten victim standing against an apocalyptic nightmare realm. This is most exemplified by the three-track vignette, “Coraje” - “Whip” - “Desafio”, a highpoint. “Coraje” seems to depict Ghersi standing against his perpetrator, only to be brutally beaten into submission on the following track. “Whip”, a jarring experimental interlude, is composed of whipping sound effects for a full minute and twenty seconds, just in case Arca’s more recent videos soused in BDSM imagery weren’t enough. Then, on “Desafio”, Ghersi executes a coup. “Desafio” is triumphant, cathartic, and the theatricality of it all nearly recalls Les Miserables. It is also the best moment of Arca. The strength of the one-two-punch is that each melody complements Arca’s production to manifest a narrative, one of entrapment, persecution, and then, redemption.
Unfortunately, other moments across Arca are less captivating. “Piel” certainly sets the tone for the emotional environment this album occupies, but it isn’t until over a third of the way through the album that anything other than climactic agony atop near-ambient production is introduced. There are about 6 vocal lead songs that feel almost indistinguishable from one another in their commitment to this drawn out, operatic quality. Following “Piel”, “Anoche” just barely builds from the energy of the former track. Later, “Saunter” and “Reverie” contain unquestionably similar arcs with their mournful opening minutes segueing into warped, oracular vocals. While these tracks taken alone are certainly affecting, it’s difficult to be equally affected when the formula is repeated, and it certainly doesn’t assist in the record’s pacing.
Arca’s previous full-length albums had difficulty with pacing as well, but for the exact opposite reason. Mutant was filled with a broad diversity of clever ideas and catchy earworms, but smashed all of its 20 songs alongside each other. Oddly, mixtapes released between each full length managed to pack swaths of creatively discomforting moments into 17-25 minute suites exhibiting a clear beginning, middle, and end – a feature sorely missed here. We linger in far too many moments while lacking the variety of prior work. For the inclusion of Alejandro’s voice, we are asked to be patient.
Given that Arca provides a number of standout moments, including those with a newfound vulnerability through, for the first time, a human touch, it serves as a crucial step toward Arca’s inevitable grand statement. One in which he finds a way to build from the strengths of past projects: the sensibilities and variety of Xen and Mutant, the engrossing cohesion of the mixtapes &&&&&, Sheep, and Entranas, and the dramatic tensions and climactic releases of Arca. Whatever the next thing is, I’m sure it will fascinate, challenge, and, hopefully, disgust.