Oftentimes in art, beauty overlaps with the grotesque. Such is the case with the new, self-titled album by Arca, the stage name of Venezuelan electronic producer Alejandro Ghersi. In looking inward, stripping down his sound, and adding his delicate vocals, Arca creates a deeply sincere self-portrait, one that manages to find common ground between the ethereal and the unsettling.
Having produced works for experimental musicians in the past, such as Björk and FKA Twigs, Arca not only feels at home in the unconventional, but relishes in it. With his first two albums, “Xen” and “Mutant,” Arca thrived in the creation of visceral, blistering electronic music that were practically pummeling in their complexity. The compositions on “Mutant” especially delved into a sort of noise jazz that unpredictably ricocheted between enveloping spaciness to claustrophobic and punishing dissonance.
Traces of the Arca formula still remain in his new, self-titled record. Though instead of carrying on the crushing, overwhelming jazz-esque sound of “Mutant” he gravitates towards more orchestral, thinly composed music. “Arca” embraces the emotional effectiveness of empty space, as if each song is a blank void with sound painted, or in this case carved, overtop. Arca also adds his vocals to his music for the first time, a stylistic choice he has initially been anxious and apprehensive to include. The opener, “Piel” (which means “skin” in Spanish) begins with his light and delicate humming, which becomes coated with ear-splitting and shiver-inducing feedback that builds in intensity over the track’s course. The juxtaposition between Arca’s sublime vocalizations and the eerie and harsh musicality is the foundation of the record, and it works wonderfully.
The second track, “Anoche” (last night), is a stunningly gorgeous piece of work. A turn from the harsh, piercing “Piel,” “Anoche” is a deftly composed and achingly sincere love song. Arca’s skyward falsettos reverb with the enthralling expansive of a soloist in an empty cathedral. The lovely lyrics match the ethereal beauty of the music as well; “Last night I missed you/Even though I haven’t met you yet,” a line no doubt borrowed from Björk’s “I Miss You” functions as both an homage to one of Arca’s musical inspirations and counterparts, but as a gift of emotion all his own.
Thematically, “Arca” is immensely introspective, more so than any project he has released so far. Growing up in a wealthy family, Arca went through drawn out struggles coming to terms with his homosexuality, and his stripped clean emotion is directly translated into music. The song “Reverie,” yet another gorgeous composition, combines layers of warped strings and industrial electronic percussion into a sort of primal and raw work of love. The lyrics “Love me again/If you dare” are a self-defeating warning that highlight Arca’s feelings towards himself.
The rest of the album continues these emotional highs with very little room to breathe, but less in a sense that it’s smothering you, but more so that it takes you in its grip and squeezes. Arca’s ability to translate feelings into music is something to behold. The track “Castration” is one of the few instrumentals, and is reminiscent of his earlier works in that it is brash and noisy, but in much more of a structurally sound and precisely composed sense. Piano keys thump over spastic noise, in what feels like Arca’s musical representation of emasculation. The closer “Child” accomplishes this in a similar vein. It’s breathtaking portrait on innocence (or perhaps the loss of innocence), in musical form. There’s no distinct answer, but the music speaks to you, and forces you to form meaning from the sounds. It doesn’t hold your hand. Rather it tosses you, naked in helpless, into Arca’s world, where you must fend for yourself.
In all, this is easily Arca’s most fully realized and beautifully constructed project to date. As the album cover (an extreme close-up of his face), would suggest, “Arca” is a high-definition glimpse inside a man’s psyche, combining gorgeous compositions and vocals, and melding them with distorted and warped instrumentals. This is not a project for everyone. Its eerie dissonance, complex orchestrations, and noise can be grating and difficult to listen to initially. But finally breaking through the overlying gloss of the grotesque, one will find a deeply human, and beautiful work worthy of embrace.