by Michael McKinney
Recommended if you like: Amnesia Scanner, Lotic,
Oneohtrix Point Never, SHXCXCHCXSH
Favorite Tracks: 7, 5, 10, 3
Alejandro Ghersi is too close to the microphone. You can hear his lips opening and closing, his breathing takes on a percussive quality all its own, and his singing is labored and scratchy. He used to cover his voice in effects, relegated to a texture in a sea of them, leaving instrumentals to handle the pyrotechnics. That’s still present on Arca, but his voice cuts through this time – a warped and queasy soprano, sometimes pushed to places that aren’t exactly within his range. It’s in this way that Arca reveals itself to be an intimate record, but in a way that’s viscerally uncomfortable; it works in textures that’ll make your hair stand on end.
None of that – the textural stuff, anyway – is new for Ghersi, though. If anything, Arca is a continuation of the sonic work of 2015’s Mutant and a step further into the space between voice and machine explored on 2016’s Entrañas. His voice, though, is new. And it makes Arca his most direct release yet, one that breathes down the listener’s neck rather than holding them at arms-length. Everything that he excelled at on previous releases – the weight and crunch and organic terror that he’s spent years refining – is on full display here, and it’s as powerful an experience as ever. But when “Piel” opens with a wordless melody from Ghersi and a piercing, amp-feedback squeal, it’s clear that something’s different.
Those melodies, as well as Arca’s lyrics, are largely improvised – fitting with the uneasy and organic nature of his music – and entirely in Spanish. In the album’s press release, Ghersi explains that “Spanish is the language my parents fought in and they got divorced in. […] It’s the language I witnessed family violence in. The ultimate theatre of emotion, when things fall apart, for me isn’t English. The language I purge through had to be the same.” It may be best, then, to see Arca as a full-throated confrontation with this past. However, the theme isn’t that cut-and-dry: in a 2016 interview with Dazed Digital, Ghersi recalled parts of his closeted upbringing in Venezuela, when he would put on performances for his family that involved dancing and singing “like a woman.” During one of these performances, his grandfather, “a typical Venezuelan-via-Spain patriarch,” walked in. “It was the first time I was looked at with disgust and shame, at an age when no one gets looked at like that […] That was my first taste of contempt.”
With that left lingering on his tongue, each wheeze and croak on Arca carries a sense of violence – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual – and a fascination with the sensuality of disgust (or disgust in sensuality). These have always been present in his music, but here, Ghersi makes it explicit: this is music about uncomfortable, stomach-churning intimacy, but it’s also about the Gordian knot of violence and healing, a rope he tangles further with the ideas of otherness and queerness. Arca takes these foundations and warps them in violent and twisted ways – this may be the performance taking place in that “theatre of emotion,” and if so, it’s a macabre one indeed. Take “Desafío,” the record’s most immediate and radio-ready (for Arca) piece: atop sirens and synth pulses that eventually give way to immense slabs of keyboard and miles-away, hollowed-out drums, Ghersi sings first “Tócame de primera vez / Mátame una y otra vez / Ámame y átame y dególlame / Búscame y penétrame y devórame” (“Touch me for the first time / Kill me again and again / Love me and tie me down and slit my throat / Look for me and penetrate me and devour me”). If this is love, as it seems to be to him, it’s taken on a view of queerness all too common in closeted households and amplified it – sexuality and otherness as a monster rather than simply a different and benign view of the world, with its form of sensual and allegorical violence twisting into its host. As he says in “Reverie”: “Ámame otra vez / Si te atreves” (“Love me again / If you dare”).
The beats, too, serve the violent and alien atmosphere that Ghersi crafts through vocal stylings and lyrical content. These are instrumentals that crawl and skitter and squirm in ways equally repulsive and magnetic, tunneling into themselves and expanding the Arca sound in ways both new and completely in step with past works. As he’s belting his wild-eyed warnings on “Reverie,” the track’s bed of wilting synthesizers has given way to a wall of machine-clatter drums and high-frequency feedback, and it’s enough to send the track into overdrive without Ghersi’s vocal presence at all. “Urchin” is powered by a relentless oscillation between pressurized depths and thin air, and it’s exhilarating as it is exhausting; the submerged piano solo and sci-fi synth stabs that cut in afterwards just serve to further the disquiet. Elsewhere, “Castration” has a glittering, wandering keyboard run into a field of fractured synth-drum spikes before the track vanishes into the eerie ambient-fi haze of “Sin Rumbo,” a piece that puts Ghersi in front of strings, harpsichords, digital-glitch drums, and nothing else at all. This crashing of supposedly opposed textures runs throughout Arca, energizing it and lending it its sense of hermetic exploration.
Even the tracks that initially come off as secondary are rendered memorable through theme and texture. “Whip,” an eighty-second meeting of bullwhip lashes and powering-down machines, is as musically agonizing in its halting, teasing rhythm as it is thematically in line with the rest of Arca – the sounds of BDSM brought to light, pleasure and pain embraced and intertwined. Meanwhile, “Coraje” seems to be his take on the piano ballad, with a broken-down keyboard accompanying his voice as it reaches textures that are raspy and scratched enough to find a surreal, unpleasant beauty. It may initially seem slight compared to the more energetic numbers surrounding it, but “Coraje” reveals itself to be a welcome respite, albeit one filtered through Ghersi’s warped aesthetic – a calm that’s still uncomfortable; quiet made unnerving rather than relaxing.
Unfortunately, not everything here has as clean a landing. Each track’s got a saving grace, thanks to the organic horror-show palette Ghersi uses, but “Child” falls flat – its harpsichord-and-synth flutters become heavy and inelegant before fading into the distance, their tension-and-release done better by, say, “Urchin” or “Whip.” It’s unfortunate that this is the track to close out Arca, leaving one with a more tepid impression than if it ended on the whisper of “Miel,” a track whose distant keyboard nudges and shaky soprano provide a fitting companion to “Piel” in its stark, quiet beauty. At moments, it’s hard not to wish for more “developed” songwriting, too, as in “Saunter,” which climaxes in a full-throated wail that Ghersi simply cuts off. This proves to be a recurring theme on the record, with moments of catharsis snatched away before they can linger for too long. These moments lead the listener into a freefall when the bottom drops out on a track, and it’s equal parts tantalizing and frustrating. If the moment a track works its way towards doesn’t stick, after all, the journey there can sometimes feel a bit moot.
But immediacy and easy answers don’t seem to be his interests here, so it’s hard to hold that against him; this may be the first Ghersi record to prominently feature his voice, but that doesn’t mean he should be expected to stick to a verse-chorus-verse formula. Instead, he holds these moments back – making them hit even harder when they do (“Desafío,” “Saunter”). Is this weak songwriting, or simply characteristically outside of the norm? He doesn’t seem to care – it’s this ragdoll relationship with the listener that lends the album its house-of-mirrors aesthetic, after all. One can see it as unfinished, or as though it’s deliberately leaving the listener with nothing to grab onto, as confused and distressed as Ghersi is. For better and worse, he isn’t interested in catering to his listeners; if previous Arca projects were knowingly grotesque and confrontational, this reads as an inevitable next step. Everything unpleasant and contentious has been dialed up a notch, and suddenly the circle is completed and the ugly is beautiful again.
Arca, then, is the sound of a man spilling his guts in the name of self-preservation. It sees Ghersi refining his craft while flinging has closet wide open, confronting his sexuality by making his skeletons as horrific as possible; he presents a bastardized version of the child who performed for his family all those years ago before getting kicked out to fend for himself in New York. Call it reclaiming, if you must; at the least, call it performative in the grandest sense of the word. Somewhere inside the guts of this skittering machine-music is a soul, after all, and it shines through loud and clear. In that interview from 2016, Ghersi said that “what used to make me ashamed and paralyzed now makes me mobile.” With Arca, he’s moving in ways that are horrifying, fascinating, and beautiful all at once.