Arca is 2014’s Lawnmower Man: a curious mind in a virtual reality.
On Xen, the elusive Venezuelan producer’s zeitgeist-defining LP, this reality is carefully constructed, shattered and rebuilt several times over. It is an album imbued with a sense of space, free from any rational, hard-edged rhythmic logic. Across the span of its 15 darkly playful tracks, melodic patterns crumble as quickly as they are constructed, or are siphoned off to reappear, transmuted into something new, later. Crunchy, tactile beats fritter and frazzle, or lay dormant only to rise up and redefine the pace of a song at seemingly random (yet instinctively satisfying) junctures. It is sculptural music in three dimensions, the contours of which always just, tantalisingly evade touch.
If Xen is a sculpture, it has a brittle shell. Sisters and Sad Bitch are songs which, through sprightly, synthetic smiles, create the impression of a façade, hinting at something Lynchian lurking beneath; a dark underbelly explored most enticingly in the title track, as well as the stark, stabbing synthetic strings of Tongue. On tracks like this, which constitute the main bulk of the running time, there is only cold emptiness punctuated by unrelenting, unsympathetic strings and choppy, half-dead beats.
At choice moments, the shell is cracked. Held Apart is a song which unashamedly reveals the emotional core of the album, somehow conjuring a unique kind of nostalgia for the future. The effect is achieved through simplicity: a soft, heartfelt melody on a honky tonk is left floating slowly. A similar sense of suspension is achieved in album highlight Failed, best experienced as accompaniment to long-term collaborator Jesse Kanda’s beguiling visuals. In the opening moments a single drawn out violin note recalls Mica Levi’s Under the Skin score, a composition with much in common tonally to Arca’s work. These softer, stranger tracks constitute a dynamic contrast from the implosive force of Bullet Chained – the song on the album which most directly alludes to Arca’s production work on Yeezus.
Perhaps what renders Xen such an intriguing album is its ability to synthesise the abstract and the physical, the digital and the corporeal. Much of the visual iconography which accompanies Arca’s work focuses on ambiguous, solitary bodies in open, liminal spaces. Again and again in Kanda’s visuals, the abstraction of the empty, digital space is focalised through recognisable contortions of the human form: something real and tangible in a maze of glitch-saturated imagery, just like the wistful honky tonk amidst the screaming synths on Xen.
And so somehow, without feeling trite or self-conscious, Arca has constructed a sirens’ song for the digital human. A glimmer of humanity mixed up in an abstract mess. His is a parallel universe superimposed over the rain-drenched streets of recognisable reality, and you’ll find that, once sucked in, you can’t get back.
Words : Francis Blagburn