Review: Arca Explores the Sexuality of Electronic Abstractions on ‘Mutant’
Release Date: November 20, 2015
At the peak of every Arca live show, the Venezuelan producer born Alejandro Ghersi interrupts his otherwise mute meditations with a scream: “It’s too much for me to take.” That line comes from “Brokeup,” a standout from Stretch 2, one of the producer’s early collections of chattering instrumentals and otherwise mostly-unintelligible vocals. And though he’s since found himself contributing to recent masterworks by Kanye West and Björk, the ideological and aesthetic framework that spawned those strange efforts still drives his music today. That line, he told Rolling Stone, is about receiving anal sex.
That’s not all that surprising if you’re familiar with Ghersi’s work, from his hazily sensual music videos on down to the bedroom judders of his mostly instrumental solo work. He transforms each instant of his austere compositions into both brutal and brutalist depictions of his inner states, anxieties, and sexuality — with a preternatural ability to conjure confusion, terror, and swaggering confidence (at alternate turns) from extraterrestrial rap beats, shattered-glass percussion parts and heat-warped synthesizer excursions. Last year’s Xen felt unapologetic, uncomfortably intimate, and endearingly honest in ways that instrumental music of this timbre can’t often convey. Drukqs-era Aphex Twin, his most obvious neo-classicist antecedent, is frigid by design. Oneohtrix Point Never, a peer in both experience and mind-bending interests, makes compositions that feel similarly nauseous and unsettled, compelling for their expansiveness and uncertainty.
Even if there’s no singular moment as explicit (take that word with all its various connotations) as “Brokeup” on his latest aural effigy, Mutant is the sound of self-assuredness. Xen’s compositional contortions reflected the transformative experience of working with Björk as one of the producers she enlists as extra help — its jagged edges and persistent prickliness feel embryonic, transitional. He was moving away from the deconstructed rap noise that marked his early material into cyborg compositions as full of heart and void as anything the Icelandic auteur made, but it was a sort of drag, as if he stole one of her alien headdresses, but kept his own visage somewhere underneath. Mutant, even as it threatens to filibuster itself at over an hour long, feels like the album that Xen was meant to grow into, with every lesson that Vulnicura taught integrated at a molecular level.
Save for the more naturalist elements (the ruffled string stabs and drums that sound like they could have been played by human hands), the component parts of Xen mostly remain intact, but they are present here in crystallized form. There’s clattering percussion clattering like a spanner in some outer space bulkhead (“Sinner”), synthesizers that just begin to approximate Psycho-esque pizzicato violin (“Vanity”), and, Yeezus H. Christ, Ghersi’s thorny minimalism hits just as hard as it ever has. There’s few new wrinkles, aside from the digitalist cumbia detour on “Anger,” but the producer’s boundary-blurring experimentalism hits like ice picks to ear drums. Even if you’re more prepared than last time, sickly drama like “Sever” can feel like staring into the sun, if just for a couple of minutes at a time.
Three tracks from Mutant’s end he underscores the overall project of his solo work with a song called “Faggot.” It starts with a dizzy mixture of distant coos and asymmetrical bells before enlisting jackhammer percussion rushes and overbearing synth stutters to bring back the jittery horror and regal float that rule this release. It’s named for a word that’s meant to make you feel small and powerless, but out of that moment, for Arca, comes might and authority.