Review: Arca, Arca

If you want something that adequately reflects and condemns our appalling social/political/bodily mind-state,  you could do a lot worse than the new Arca album.
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If you want something that adequately reflects and condemns our appalling social/political/bodily mind-state,  you could do a lot worse than the new Arca album.
Arca album cover

If you want something that adequately reflects and condemns our appalling social/political/bodily mind-state — something to both rattle and soothe your nerves in the midst of all sorts of mutilation and nonsense — you could do a lot worse than the new Arca album. Take Alejandro Ghersi’s abstract electronic compositions as weird background music and they’re interesting enough, but don’t do much that he didn’t already do on Mutant, his last proper album. And to be fair, in many ways this really is just Mutant with more singing. But give the best pieces here — i.e. the first six tracks — some fair time on good headphones and it’s disturbing in the best and strangest ways: a pitch-black digital blanket for fierce but dying contempt and sorrow. Arca is now making, in the best sense, horror music, with body horror remaining a specialty.

Arca’s work on Yeezus (and to a lesser extent his work for FKA Twigs and his own early mixtapes) already showed he was capable of some of the scariest music out there — at times almost as scary, albeit in different ways, as the art that came out of Austria and Germany between the two World Wars, a.k.a. the scariest art ever — but his work with Björk showed that he could fold-in moments of relief and beauty pretty well too, no matter how odd or abrasive the textures could get. On the second half of the new album, he overbalances and comes up with some surprisingly corny stuff, but on the first half — most of which, tellingly, was previously released in the lead-up to the album proper — he takes off from where tracks like “Else” and “Peonies” from Mutant (or the less percussive last third of the Entrañas mix) left off, inspiring a sense of creepy self-mangling dread that’s apt and even sorta progressive.

He’s organizing his textures more rigorously now. Some tracks even have cogent beginnings and ends, in contrast to his more sketchlike earlier work. Yet the textural interplay is so specific and abstract, the vocal melodies all so uniformly haunted in that same soprano choirboy voice of his (which does get boring over the course of a whole album), that aside from specific instances of tone color, how much is there to really say about it without getting densely and/or lengthily theoretical?

So I’ll just mention a few high points, first and foremost the astounding “Reverie”, which sounds almost cohesive as its slow-mo cellos rock back and forth and vague groans and roars mount from a cave, Arca emphasizing the high warble of his own voice before the whole soundscape is subsumed by what sounds like thwacked sheet metal in a deep clustered throbbing beat…only to be subsumed again, at last, into harsh static. (I get a kick out of just re-starting the first few seconds of that track, where a very closely-miked acoustic guitar does one slow strum into these sci-fi synth strings; the whole world seems to get just a little bigger.) Or take the hum-turned-radio-feedback-squeal ebbing in and out of “Piel” like some sort of dystopian fantasy movie with a cityscape covered in dusky bleak rain and grey fuel while Arca repeats a soft, anguished vocal melody so carefully that the “opening-up” midway through — ghostly cellos and the poisoned hum of recirculated air — feels even more like slipping into blackness once and for all. “Anoche” makes use of a typical Arca trick, accentuating the precise moment when the resonance of a high piano plink starts to wobble in and out of focus — a very eerie sound used prominently on this album and Mutant — but the track also features a really touching moment wherein his voice starts to bend toward the sunshine around the 2:20 mark, percussion rattling as though the drums were filled with dry grass, with it all coming to a sudden (and brief) halt that splits its own wobble down the middle. It’s beautiful.

The second half of the album, as mentioned earlier, is less interesting. Part of it, also as mentioned earlier, is that Arca’s soprano gets wearying; it’s not a particularly textured or dynamic instrument, and though I’m obviously losing something by the fact that I don’t speak Spanish, I doubt what I’m missing could be pivotal to enjoying the second half. I even tried starting the album at track seven a few times, just to be sure I wasn’t merely getting bored of the overall effect. But no — the material was weaker, too. Throwaway experiments like the ear-nibbling “Fugaces” comedown or “Whip”, which loops and quickly overlaps a barrage of bullwhip snaps and winds down just as quickly (listen to M.I.A.’s “Swords” instead), aren’t offensive or anything, but by the time of “Miel”, the high piano wobble feels long in the tooth, and the melodic fragments there or in “Sin Rumbo” (which is mostly just singing) are neither unique enough by themselves nor interestingly contrasted by the textures. And “Desafio” sounds like one of those lame early-‘90s house cuts that rappers used to shove toward the ends of their albums as a last-minute push to appeal to someone, anyone…that is until the track mercifully doubles-up a vocal loop and becomes something more desperate, cathartic even, in its second half. “Coraje”, similarly, has a dusky, even restful chord progression — it’s practically settling, dammit — but a music-box pattern comes in under a voice that’s miked a little differently than the rest, and the track ends up feeling like a distant subconscious voice speaking in its own isolated little bubble. (Like a ghost in the shell!) So even weaker material can be barely salvaged.

“Castration” is probably as close as the beats get to full-on rave territory — and even then, not that close at all — with yet more rapid thwacking dropping in and out for bleating bits of keyboard to wriggle around and make, oddly enough, the closest thing to a catchy “hook” on the album. “Saunter” bursts into some sort of metallic bath with its mix: a high, squelched tape-rewinding noise running counterpoint to sounds of sizzling oil and a very trebly sort of slow-motion strobe texture pushing it on, all of which creak and squeak out little bits of melody that burble off into raw static. (There’s some exaggeratedly operatic singing on that track, too, that’s a refreshing break from all that soprano.) “Urchin” trickles down with a snake-like baby’s whine, with stepping-down intervals that sound almost Baroque as new age synth-strings at the beginning disguise rappers and then diva voices that all come in waves beneath nauseated beats and a playful zipping-up glissando on what sounds like a toy harp.

I’m just listing cool moments, aren’t I? Sorry! But some of Arca’s compositional methods are really that good, and by now remind me of late spectralism a bit in the way the instruments begin to play the overtones of other more “vocal” sounds so that the tones bleed over and then disguise each other. (Take the bleeping keyboard in the first half of “Reverie” shrouding little dots of soprano harmony — or vice-versa.) Again, I’d strongly advise headphone listening — the subtle low buzz, thrum, or trebly wobble should be pronounced in your ears, and not for nothing is Arca himself miked so close that you can clearly hear his wet lips and soft breathing in between his notes. The guy has few peers in either classical or popular music at the moment, his music perhaps even bleaker than Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) and even more grotesque than Osvaldo Golijov, and though his methods still sometimes give him an excuse not to bother finishing his pieces, he’s organizing his textures into compositions now, and though I still wouldn’t say the new album is quite as good as Mutant — it’s less eclectic and the textures feel less novel — its best passages strike an even more ghastly mood that stops you short. In this philosophy, there’s no use fretting about “decadence” anymore, as that world has already been effectively ruined. But the guy has done a lot with his privilege, which is worthy of great respect, and there’s time after time where you’ll hear something on this album that you can’t even pin down because it’s so alien, and not in a “weird for the sake of weird” way. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being weird for the sake of weird, and it should be noted that Arca still often willfully avoids the more conventionally satisfying turn, like the way he could’ve easily joined the sections of “Urchin” by a half-bar advance on the percussion, but doesn’t.) In the way these bizarre textures fold in on themselves and emerge as something trying to congeal its way out of a bleak hellscape, this music serves as a disturbing reminder of a grotesque sociopolitical landscape that Schopenhauer might call the will of the unorganized organism. What’s that noise? A sob downstairs? Siren? Bomb dropping a few dozen miles down the road? Your own nerves and cartilage rupturing itself? The world is our oyster! B PLUS