There’s a moment on Xen, Arca’s full-length debut, when it feels as if the album—hell, the world—is coming to pieces. It happens during the fifth song, “Sisters”, which opens with digital noise strafing across limpid chords, like the Stuxnet virus attacking a high-end aquarium. Woozy keys and LinnDrum beats are hard-panned to the left channel, while the right channel alternates between silence and piercing sinewaves. Every now and then, the stereo imaging corrects itself and we’re treated to a few bars of pleasantly symmetrical funk, but it’s torn asunder every time, the landscape leveled by that tinnitus-grade screech. It’s like Prince versus Merzbow, Purple Rain and pink noise locked in mortal combat in some distant-future holodeck. It is a fucked up scene.
It would be a bold move for any debut album—and the iTunes helpdesk will be getting emails about “faulty” MP3s—but it’s particularly audacious given the trajectory of the Venezuelan-born producer Alejandro Ghersi’s career. He’s got a handful of releases to his name so far, including 2012’s Stretch 1 and Stretch 2, a pair of bewildering EPs that threaded glassy digital synths with sped-up vocals and chopped’n’screwed stutterbeats, all as twisted and contorted as the weird, milky appendages pictured on their sleeves. Beyond that, though, Arca is best known as a next-generation super-producer, or a potential one, anyway. He’s already produced some of FKA twigs‘ best work, he’s co-producing Björk‘s next album, and he had a hand in four songs on Kanye‘s Yeezus.
But Xen, named for Ghersi’s ambiguously gendered alter ego, shows that Arca’s brush with the big time has not softened him. Nothing else on the album is quite as violent as “Sisters”, but all of it feels gripped by the same sort of tension. Kick drums stutter and stumble; rhythmic patterns fall apart in mid-song. A few of the beat-oriented tracks, like “Fish”, have come completely untethered from the rigid grid that usually governs electronic music’s timekeeping. Sounding like a hardstyle rework of Laurie Anderson‘s “O Superman” made with a broken MIDI clock, it flaps at the edges like a tarp with a busted tent pole. Aside from a few relatively placid sketches recalling Harold Budd or Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, the palette tends to emphasize hammered metal, broken glass, and melted plastic; plucked tones and bent notes and nails-on-a-chalkboard sheets of dissonance. (The strident synths of “Tongue” sound like they’ve been inspired by the shower scene in Psycho.) Taken as a whole, it is an album about unstable unities, things that cannot easily hold together, wholes breaking to pieces and being put back together again in new and unfamiliar shapes.
Even the pacing of the album seems to move in fits and starts. From the dramatic opener, “Now You Know”, all elastic arpeggios and rocket-launch glissandi, he feints left into the Harold Budd homage “Held Apart”, and from there it’s on to the schizophrenic “Xen”, a song divided between metallic locust-swarm passages and Fairlight fantasias flecked with synthetic birdsong. “Slit Thru”, a downcast Dem Bow number, gives way to the languorous and atmospheric “Failed”, a meandering synthesizer jam that wouldn’t sound out of place on Fairlights, Mallets and Bamboo, a mixtape of Japanese ambient pop from the 1980s. From there, the pizzicato string synths of “Family Violence” lead into the reggaeton-leaning “Thievery”, the closest thing to a single on the album. And so on, all the way through the anticlimactic (but still exhilarating!) closer, “Promise”, with its aimless string plucks and blast-furnace rumble. Xen feels less like a narrative arc than an amalgam of two- and three-minute chunks that might work just as well on shuffle. That’s not a criticism. To the contrary: the album’s mazelike shape is an indicator of how much lies beneath the surface. You really could get lost in this thing.
It’s been a while since it felt like there was anything really, categorically new in popular music, or even semi-popular music. As Simon Reynolds’ Retromania argued, the story of the century so far has mostly been one of collaging together the bits and pieces of earlier decades. Gradually, however, it is becoming clear that something is cresting the horizon, and while it’s too early to make out the particulars of its shape—this lumbering behemoth with the Teflon gleam and Transformer joints and image-mapping skin—it is getting closer.
This new thing is not a genre, exactly; call it a style, a sensibility, a veneer. It has to do with computers and digital sound and digital imagery. It has to do with representation and malleability, the idea that sound and image can be stretched and twisted and copied ad nauseam. It revels in digital gloss and grit, in bent tones, in smeared and frozen reverb tails. Extreme compression, schizoid pith: rap vocals broken down to monosyllables, a single “Huh” as metonym for everything that’s happened between the Sugarhill Gang and now. History reduced to a USB stick.
It’s not necessarily sci-fi in its themes—not, say, in the way that Detroit techno celebrated cybernetics and space travel—but there’s still something inherently futuristic about its portrayal of technology as something tangible and even sensual, its suggestion that data has texture and heft. It spins code into a second skin. (I realize that that description doesn’t sound that far off from The Matrix—a 1999 film that, these days, we’re likelier to read as kitsch than as prophecy—but this stuff is different; it’s less Keanu than Cronenberg.) You can make out its traces in the work of people like Actress, Oneohtrix Point Never, Evian Christ, FKA twigs, Berlin’s Janus crew, and even PC Music, and it feels like it’s coming to a head on Arca’s Xen. The next few years—his next few years—are going to be interesting.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1wWXGuw