Text Faizal Nafis
There is a sense of anxiety that pervades through much of Arca’s Xen. This is understandable when you consider the weight of expectation that is being put on the latest release from this 24-year-old who’s hyped to be the next up-and-coming super-producer. Arca is the alias of Alejandro Ghersi, and the last few years have been truly remarkable for him. Out of nowhere he was credited for co-producing four tracks on Kanye West’s showpiece Yeezus. His first two albums have by now achieved cult status and at the time of writing this review, are selling at USD250 on the secondhand music market Discogs. There are also a string of other collaborations – from producing for Kelela and Dean Blunt to scoring Hood By Air music videos – to add to his excellent musical repertoire. And of course there’s the album that he produced for FKA twigs that was a favourite to win this year’s Mercury Prize (Young Fathers deservingly beat it).
When talking about his music, what makes it dazzling is his inherent ability to transpose different sounds, often time in fluent contrast, creating a postmodern musical assemblage that could actually represent his own upbringing and persona. This could be surmised as the result of having lived in three different cities –Caracas, New York, and currently London – that mirror the continuous echoes of urban displacement and present-day uncertainties pervasive on the record. The Arca project itself was supposed to be a creative cathartic outlet for Ghersi to face his own gender identity crisis – and for the purpose of the album, its sonic narration was told from the point of view of Arca’s alter-ego ‘Xen’; a fictional sexually ambiguous female videogame character. It’s quite something that he is able to meld together these different perspectives and frame of references into a cohesive album.
For Xen, varied tones work within a bold aggressive sonic template that borrows heavily from witch house rather than the experimental hip hop of Arca’s first release (admittedly witch house was influenced by the 808s of southern hip hop). Rumbling percussions and subaquatic bass lines provide the understructure, and this is overlapped by pitch-shifted piano chords, rubbery squelches, and crunchy harmonics. It is fragmented and disorienting, but persistent and uptight as well, a dystopian aural vision of things not sitting well together. The connection between Xen and all his other works can easily be made, however the aim of this album was certainly to inject more emotions and dramatics but by way of using fewer samples, and less shapeshifting. The sincerity of the songcraft is clearly felt when the album is at its bare bones. The best song on the album is undoubtedly the heartwarming ‘Held Apart’, a truly Aphex Twin’s ‘Avril 14th‘ moment – just via a simple piano melody with basic effects, the storytelling is clear and the aim of the album is achieved without unnecessary histrionics. In fact, the best of Arca’s work is mostly when he is not overworking elements within a song. The two favourites of last year come to mind, FKA twigs’ ‘Water Me’ and Dean Blunt’s ‘The Redeemer’, both highly recommended. Beyond the two trip hop-referenced songs, ‘Sisters’ and ‘Thievery’ are also fantastic due to their excellent songwriting and calculatedly effective arrangements.
Which brings us to where the album falls short; there are sections on the album that seem superficially messy and convoluted; where over-intricate hyperactive rhythmic patterns do not seem to add value to the end product. Now that Arca is signed to a much bigger-budgeted label, Mute, and owing to Arca’s past classical training, we were hoping to see the use of lush and expansive orchestral arrangements to counteract his established use of jittery and jagged beat constructions – that didn’t quite materialise. There are also too many recycled parts, and the use of the same sound synthesis throughout the album does not help either. ‘Fish’ for instance, feels like the inferior version of ‘Tongue’. Sure, you can have somebody like Legowelt freely constructing a great album off a couple of presets on a cheap flea market-found Casio, but in Arca’s case however, the overused patterns using the same compressed soundstage are simply fatiguing. This album would greatly improve if the number of songs was cut by half or so.
Xen is also the rare few times that a bunch of collaborators would be a goddamned good idea – it’s just crying out for features with the likes of Tricky and Dirty Projectors, or hell, even any of the Odd Future crew members. And you know what? There’s a Björk album that Arca is currently working on, and her voice would be a fantastic fit for Xen! Imagine that the next time you are listening to this album.
LISTEN TO: ‘Held Apart’
IF YOU LIKE THIS YOU’LL DIG: Evian Christ
1. Now You Know
2. Held Apart
4. Sad Bitch
6. Slit Thru
8. Family Violence
10. Lonely Thugg
13. Bullet Chained