When not working with popular music’s most infamous eccentrics, from Björk to FKA twigs, Venezuelan producer Alejandro Ghersi, known alternatively under his musical moniker of Arca, crafts disturbing and diseased soundscapes that inhabit the darkest crevices of electronic music’s underground scene. Recently, it seems that Ghersi has been focussed on increasing the creep factor of the Arca name to its highest degree, with the title of his previous studio album, Mutant, and its unpleasant album cover acting as apt reflections of the artist’s music. Arca’s disquieting image has continued onto his latest, self-titled project, with its artwork being as unsettling as ever, and with the music videos associated with the singles from this release playing out like body horror blockbusters on LSD. Beyond the heightened menace of Arca’s appearance, Ghersi’s newest full-length release marks a striking musical alteration to his eerie electronic stylings, that being the inclusion of vocals from the DJ himself, with his singing being the central focus of a significant portion of these pieces. Of course, being an Arca album, the producer’s vocal input seeks to contribute to the musical freak show, with his performances being unsettling to say the least, at times even descending into a mess of gargled gibberish. However, with Arca being heavily centred around its creepy complexion, arguably even more so than previous Arca records, an issue that recurred on the project’s previous two studio albums appears here once again, that being the sacrificing of sufficient song structures in favour of this striking aesthetic. Mutant, with many of its compositional ideas given sufficient time to come to fruition within longer track lengths, saw an improvement from Arca’s debut album, Xen, which had a tendency to make only a minimal attempt to flesh out its compelling motifs. In terms of how Arca compares to its precursor, therefore, it feels almost as if Ghersi has taken a step back towards his habit of insufficiently conveying his admittedly enthralling musical stylings within somewhat insular song structures, with the appeal of this record being hinged perhaps too heavily on its disturbing appearance. Ultimately, therefore, Ghersi once again demonstrates his keen ear for ghoulish, brooding electronic soundscapes, but often fails to fully actualise these intriguing ideas.
As has been the case with previous Arca albums, there is no shortage of captivating concepts displayed on this newest project, rather these left-field ideas are not always presented in a way that complements them all that well or even translates them into a satisfying listening experience. On Arca, there is perhaps no better example of this than the track Whip, wherein Ghersi literally samples the noise of a whip and cuts it up in various ways as to form a short composition out of it. Not only is such an endeavour fantastically inventive, but it also serves as a fitting reflection of the violent and sometimes sexual undercurrents to Arca’s artistic presentation, through not solely the music, but also the visual artwork associated with the project. What’s even more impressive is just how well the recording of these whipping noises is captured, with the whip sounding pristinely vivid and as startlingly vicious as it should. The way in which Ghersi chops up the whipping sample and constructs these sounds into discernible rhythmic structures, whilst the production laces the recording with booming echoes that bounce around the mix, is executed masterfully, with the abrupt bursts of plummeting electronics complementing the general abrasiveness of the track exceptionally well. Unfortunately, however, just as the crushing chaos starts to take form into what sounds like the beginning of an elaborated piece, the track suddenly ends, which is disappointing given that things seemed to just be getting started. What’s more, being the shortest track on the record at just over a minute in length and one of the few cuts not to feature any vocal input from Ghersi, Whip can’t help but feel like a novelty interlude track. Given that the musician had shown that he knew how to manipulate this simple but creative idea as to transform it into something really special, a fully-formed composition seemed perfectly possible and would have served this idea far better, extending it beyond the status of a brief, quirky detour. Rather frustratingly, the second shortest song in the tracklisting, Saunter, is another of the album’s most intense and commanding moments, but is confusingly cut short with no real justification. The plucky synth melody that carries the song is as creepy as it is captivating, whilst the mess of skittish electronics that form under it only emphasise its brooding darkness. The way in which the layers of bass and various countermelodies build on the main synth progression is almost orchestral, as if the listener is being guided by the music through a hallway and towards a theatre, where we are sat down and treated to a moving, borderline operatic vocal performance from Ghersi. However, yet again, just as it feels as if the piece is about to unfold in front of us, the track simply ends. Across its two-minute duration, the way in which Saunter had progressed pointed so heavily towards a fully fleshed out composition that its blunt ending is a massive disappointment. It’s moments such as these that make the listening experience of Arca almost frustrating at times, with some of its most gripping musical moments being dropped far too quickly, making them seem essentially like short sonic samplers for longer songs that we never hear.
At other points on the record, Ghersi’s interesting ideas are hindered by a lack of equally interesting progression, a reservation I have found to recur across Arca’s previous releases. In fact, this is perhaps even more true of this self-titled album, with certain cuts being so centred around Ghersi’s gentle, fractured vocal performances that the structuring of the instrumental arrangements suffer from a lack of effective development as a result. A handful of songs from Arca, such as Piel, Coraje and Miel, are practically identical from a structural perspective, simply concentrating on creating ominous, ambient backdrops, over which Ghersi delivers some similarly cracked vocal performances that are often so breezy as to sound rather directionless, without providing much for the listener to properly focus on. Typically, it’s the more dynamic tracks, in which Ghersi devotes more attention to intricacies and the general progression of the piece, that go over far better. Castration, for instance, is a particularly oppressive song, and is made much more effective by the way in which the artist engages with the song structure, with the weaving textures of eerie piano melodies, glitchy percussion and punishing pulsations creating a genuinely aggressive atmosphere, which plays into Arca’s aesthetic nicely without relying too heavily on it. Also, Desafío is a particularly impressive song, on which the time Ghersi spent working as a producer and co-writer for FKA twigs’ on her second EP really shows, with the track assuming a surprisingly accessible avant-pop vibe. The foundation of swirling siren sounds provides the frightening backdrop from which Arca tracks tend to benefit, whilst Ghersi comes through with one of his most conventional vocal performances on the entire record, conveying an enticing melody that is supported well by the bubbling electronic textures that are built up really nicely underneath it. The success of the production on these cuts comes as no surprise, as Ghersi displays his dexterity as a DJ even on the album’s more wanting tracks. Ultimately, it’s not typically the musician’s ability to conceive interesting ideas that is at fault, rather the way in which he conveys his intriguing stylings in the context of full compositions can sometimes see them get lost in translation, due to oversights with regards to the structuring and development of some of these tracks.
On his third album, Ghersi most definitely furthers his forays into the dingiest corners of experimental electronic music, with the addition of the producer’s vocals adding yet another layer of creepiness to Arca’s enrapturing horror. However, beyond this admittedly well-crafted appearance, much of the material on Arca is somewhat underwritten and dishevelled, with certain tracks coming across as brief tasters for grander compositions that never see the light of day. The real shame of it is that pieces such as Saunter and Whip are incredibly appetising on first exposure, but their abrupt endings leave a bitter taste in the listener’s mouth. Ghersi can be given all the credit in the world for his abilities as a producer and the endlessly fascinating musical concepts he concocts, but he nevertheless occasionally leaves a lot to be desired in the realisation of these ideas. Arca, therefore, is as disturbing as ever on his self-titled record, perhaps even more so than usual, but this is also unfortunately reflected in the heavy reliance on his aesthetic to provide the appeal of this album, with the pieces sometimes suffering as a result.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10