Venezuelan-born producer Alejandro Ghersi, who works under the name Arca, has and will have a hand in working with some pretty big name clientele. Helped with Kanye West on Yeezus? Check. Co-producing Björk’s new record? Yep. Produced FKA twigs? You betcha. So into this fray he has unleashed his own disc, Xen, the name of which references his male-female alter ego, and it is definitely an emotional album. It is an instrumental electronic record, one that is meant to evoke feelings in the listener, and Xen does run the full gamut. It is also a very forward looking LP: the music seems new and fresh, it folds in on itself, and, in hearing it, you do feel that Arca is pushing the boundaries of modern music in some way.
There’s a lot at work here, a broad palette is unleashed, but the net result is something that feels disturbing and unsettling. There are moments of joy, such as the blissed-out “Lonely Thugg” with a playful squiggly keyboard lick, but, ultimately, Xen feels unsettling, and you may have to spend some time with it to unravel whatever judgments you may have about it. It is surely progressive, but it does come at the expense of being somewhat draining and challenging. Not that Xen is out there in left field entirely, but it requires as much thought as it does a visceral response.
Probably the most startling track is “Family Violence”, with its stabby violins that evoke the theme music to Psycho. It is disturbing, as it was probably meant to be, and the instruments are as jagged and sharp as a knife cutting into your flesh during a shower. Similarly icy is “Held Apart”, a sad piano-based song that plumbs the depth of sorrow. There’s even a hiccup about mid-way through the piece, a subtle flaw, as though Ghersi is checking his emotion. On the other hand, “Xen” is insect-like, with the instruments flapping around and creating a dark cadence. “Failed” has all of the warning shot of a tornado siren going off, and yet it is soft and soothing – and that kind of discrepancy or polarity is what really makes Xen such a captivating experience.
This is not music to necessarily sit back and enjoy (though I suppose you could do that) but one that gives you pause, a chance to actually use grey matter in sussing out the material. For instance, “Fish” is notable in that there’s a section that “skips”, as though your CD is defective. It’s as though these “errors” are deliberate touches, a reminder that the artist is just a human being who puts on his pants one leg at a time like the rest of us, and there are flaws in the human experience. That’s startling for someone to express so passionately in one’s music, especially when there are no real lead vocals on the album to speak of.
“Bullet Chained” is incessant pounding of rhythms, as though a certain level of anger and anguish is being expressed – and it is on songs of this nature that, again, you have to realize that you’re peeking behind the curtain and seeing a soul laid bare. There’s “Tongue”, which isn’t soft and tasty, but a song with ragged rhythms and keyboards that sound like they came out of a metal working shop – and the taste it leaves is one that is sharp and metallic. And “Wound” again is an expression of a body that is in deep mourning with its indistinguishable Auto-tuned vocals and swirling violins. Considering that the word “violins” is merely a homophone for “violence”, it makes the listener catch his or her breath in the context of the song title.
Really, there’s much about Xen that feels deep – something that the musician is trying to get out of his system without resorting to mere words. And where there are words, they are merely just another instrument, a layer that works in concert with everything else. Even when wordless though, this record has an impact.The album ends on “Promise”, but the question is what? The synths careen wildly, there’s the sound in the background of someone grieving something, and it becomes a matter that perhaps there is no promise, as the song in itself is scattershot in nature – playful, but not joyous. It is the sound of someone suffering through an anxiety attack.
Xen is uncharted territory, one whose compass sometimes spins wildly out of control. And, indeed, the record stops dead cold, unsure of what its next move is. However, the LP is pointed ahead – there are moments where you could swear that what’s being suggested is a landscape popularized by flying cars and replicant drones. But, more tellingly, this is a disc about the inner landscape, the one ruled by feelings. That’s really what makes the album a deep and moving occurrence. You can tell why Arca is in demand as a producer – he knows how to coax out the inside world and make it palpable for listeners.
While Xen isn’t really an easy listen – and if you are listening to this passively, you’ll be missing out on an awful lot – it also isn’t impenetrable. That’s a fine line to walk, and Arca succeeds admirably. It’s true that this record can be a funhouse mirror with its soundscapes distorted and bent out of shape, but to be able to articulate that and still sound as though as you have something worth saying is a feat. So listen to this. Think about it. Wonder how the personal emotional confessions of an artist may have something to say about your life. If you do, Xen is a reward and miles ahead of much of its electronica peers. This is uncompromising stuff, with little holding back, and the end effect is one that wears not just its heart, but its soul, on its sleeve. Arca invites you to come along for the ride into the netherworld of the self, and those who do may feel alternately exhausted and exhilarated. Still, it’s a ride well worth taking, and you may just be all the better for it.