Arca is the stage name of Venezuela-born, London-based DJ and producer Alejandro Ghersi. After several EP releases, Arca became something of a hot name for his work on Kanye West’s boundary-pushing Yeezus album. After a year of reclusiveness, Xen marks his full-length debut.
First off, Xen earns points simply for what it is not. Many big name electronic music producers, when striking out on their own, will corral lots of radio-friendly, attention-getting guest vocalists. Sometimes this strategy works, and it surely pays off in the form of some left-field hits, but just as often it comes across as a forced marriage that fails both parties. But Arca has not taken that course with Xen. A few sampled snippets aside, its 15 tracks are exclusively instrumental. Not even West makes an appearance.
In that sense, Xen is as uncompromising as much of the advance buzz has made it out to be. If “ambitious”, “amelodic”, and “challenging” translate to “uncompromising”, the album scores on those accounts, too.
Tellingly, the bit of amorphous synthesizer noise that opens first track “1” is one of the most clearly defined, structured moments on Xen. For the most part it is built around glassy, splintered shards of sound, which only occasionally, as if by accident, cohere into something resembling a “song” in the way most folks would think of it.
After that initial moment of relative hush, “1” lumbers to life like a giant metallic machine, rustling about restlessly before eventually being tortured mercilessly. “Tongue”, meanwhile, is the kind of sound you might imagine coming from a broken vacuum cleaner were a condenser microphone placed inside. It’s all labored mechanical breaths, tense tones, and metallic thwacks, with the hint of sub-bass lurking just underneath.
The title track starts off with a rhythmic scraping noise, as if a futuristic car is trying to start but cannot. Machine gun blasts, laser zaps, and some staccato synth-orchestra stabs follow, but don’t get very far before the car-starting starts again, and so on.
It’s all very dystopian, Philip K. Dick, Terminator opening credits, kind of thing. Representative song titles are “Slit Thru”, “Failed”, “Lonely Thugg”. It’s less than subtle. But it’s not all formless, either. “Sisters” manages to maintain something of a regular rhythm, even a vaguely Prince-like one, and merges the pretty (synths) and the ugly (samples) to create something evocative. “Family Violence” and “Wound” are string quartet affairs, the latter sounding like the adagio from Platoon. Also, “Held Apart” and “Failed” are vast, glacial navel-gazing mood pieces of the kind perfected in the 1980s by the ultimate 4AD house band, This Mortal Coil.
Even the dystopian stuff has been done with more verve before, with Future Sound of London’s work coming to mind. All this is to say Xen compromises in that it is not quite as forward-thinking or rule-breaking as its creator is known to be. It falls into a conundrum that is nearly as common to producers’ “artist” albums as the guest-vocalist issue. It simply lacks a center, a theme or force to give it more cohesion, focus, and gravity. Often, it is a soundtrack in search of something to soundtrack.
Maybe that is where the listener comes in. To the listener, a word of caution, though. It’s not going to be easy going. Maybe this is what Xen will be the perfect soundtrack to: The realization the world is bleak and your life is pretty lousy. Or you are not going to feel so well when you wake up in the morning. Something like that.
Arca is said to be co-producing Björk’s new album, which sounds about perfect, and probably tells you all you need to know about Xen.