Photo: Daniel Shea

Arca: Arca

Arca's third album is both emotionally enrapturing and conceptually thrilling.

Watching Alejandro Ghersi stumble-dance on metal stilts in the music video for “Reverie”, keening woefully and ultimately ending up covered in blood, one gets a glimpse of what Arca might look like if staged as a kind of twisted contemporary ballet. From the beginning, Ghersi’s music has largely ignored the steady, chugging rhythms that compose a typical dance track. Instead, he specializes in spasms of electronic sound that evade grasping, in beats like broken glass that tear apart the surface of a song before dissipating back into the shadows. His productions indeed evoke dance, but could best be analogized to modern interpretations of the form — the kind of dance with as much pausing, falling, and inscrutable stillness as there is legible movement.

Ghersi’s third full-length release as Arca is both his most theatrical and delicate yet, in large part due to the prominent, untreated feature of his voice on most tracks. The obscure, shattered electronic landscapes that marked previous LPs Xen and Mutant are still here, though now they seem to duel with a wounded and resolutely human protagonist. Opening track “Piel” sets the stage for this dynamic, Ghersi’s fragile voice humming a series of simple, pining verses while sinister drones hover in the background, merely lurking for the time being yet foreshadowing their eventual assault.

Having mostly hidden his singing voice away until now, it is stunning to discover how compelling and able a vocalist Ghersi can be. He sings entirely in Spanish, which the Venezuelan-born artist explains is “the language that my parents fought in and they got divorced in. It’s the language I witnessed family violence in.” While ultimately opting for a self-titled release, when Ghersi initially announced his third album in early 2016 he said that it would be called Reverie. This title would also have been appropriate given the manner in which he sings: on warbling tracks like “Anoche” and “Sin Rumbo”, the latter of which also served as the finale to last year’s mixtape Entrañas, he sounds solitary, removed, and not a little tragic. In terms of mood, it’s almost like opera, or like a Shakespearean soliloquy delivered in song.

While the majority of Ghersi’s singing is in this lush, theatrical, naked style, he is more versatile than he at first lets on. Most notably, on standout track “Desafio” his voice sounds suddenly lithe and sinewy, solid and almost metallic where it once was all liquid. Arriving about three-quarters of the way through the album, the song tempers its weight and tragedy with an almost playful and flirtatious style. It is the album’s poppiest and most accessible moment.

Those craving more familiar Arca fare will nonetheless find select moments reminiscent of works like Xen. Ghersi made the wise choice to include “Urchin”, an online release from winter of last year, on the album proper. More direct and overtly intense than most of Arca, the track is also one of the best things Ghersi has produced to date. The synths rise like steam from wet city streets at night, before being interrupted by violent, rhythmic noise forming only the shadow of actual beats. It is an assault on the senses that drags you by the legs into its dark underworld. While quite different from the plaintive style Arca will most likely be remembered for, “Urchin” works alongside other noisy electronic tracks like “Castration” and “Whip” to shake up the pace and prevent the album from dissolving entirely into lugubrious melodrama.

At this point, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that Arca is one of the most vital and consequential voices in electronic music this generation has seen. While he has lent his production hand to other iconic albums like FKA twigs’ LP1, Kanye West’s Yeezus, and Björk’s Vulnicura, Ghersi’s solo work deserves its own course of study. His style is immediately recognizable, inimitable, and fundamentally self-possessed, bearing little debt to his predecessors. When one attempts to grasp, identify, and thus fix in place his music, it always squirms away, like a queer theory treatise manifested in sound. In keeping with this principle, Arca likewise refuses to ossify into a legible and easily recognizable shape, defying our expectations of the artist’s output while remaining untethered even to a clearly delineated internal logic. All of this evasion paradoxically pays off, and the resulting album is both emotionally enrapturing and conceptually thrilling.

RATING 9 / 10