Album Review: Arca – Xen

Arca - Xen album



“Eyes glazed over in gratitude,” reads Arca’s most recent tweet, which is already three days old when I sit down to “Sisters” for the 15th time today. In this new social age, most producers (and their publicists) are determined to trend. Meanwhile, Arca, born Alejandro Ghersi, continues his leisurely, sold-out tour schedule and allows the tortured charm of his debut album, Xen, to resonate across underground sound systems. The Venezuela-born producer would rather spend time discovering himself than engaging with the constant beefs in hip-hop and electronic realms. Even when wrapping the improvisatory recording sessions that would eventually make up the album’s brisk 15 tracks, Ghersi remained absent from his SoundCloud account, choosing to barely tease the album before its release. Despite this relative seclusion, or because of it, Ghersi has become a favorite producer for artists looking to challenge the status quo of pop music — namely, Kanye West and FKA twigs, not to mention his upcoming co-production credits on Björk’s ninth album.

It’s not the beautiful noise alone that makes Ghersi a prized partner; his character is a fundamental asset of these collaborations as well. As an openly gay man, Ghersi has repeatedly taken the risk to establish his own identity — an identity that occasionally morphs into his sassy alter ego, Xen, from whom this debut gets its name. These qualities form the amorphous boundaries of Ghersi’s restless melodies. His general defiance of traditional songwriting standards is possibly due to Ghersi’s training in classical piano, a skill set that features predominantly during the delicate romanticism of “Held Apart” and the slightly twisted instrumental love affair that winds through “Sad Bitch”. “Family Violence” lacks the ivory arrangements, but its violins tell a tale of tragedy totally void of any electronic accompaniment.

No matter how far out an arrangement may be, it comes from a place of sincerity. At moments, the two-minute “Fish” is as pummeling as anything Aphex Twin and patten have released this year; however, this brutality, eventually calmed by a wave of bliss, doesn’t seem out of place against the album’s early restraint. Once the subdued ambiance of “Wound” subsides, Ghersi further explores his IDM fascination during the album’s final third. Contentment isn’t always feasible; during “Bullet Chained”, Ghersi unleashes the more destructive sides of his personality.

It was this earnest transparency, especially when seen amid the posh insincerity of New York’s trendier districts (he now lives in Brooklyn), that eventually earned Ghersi the ears of Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver and Kanye West. No matter one’s opinion of West, his tutelage should not be undervalued. While working on Yeezus, Ghersi was working on the same level as electro legends Daft Punk, techno evolutionaries Gesaffelstein and Brodinski, plus the visionaries Mike Dean, Hudson Mohawke, and Lunice. The talent runs deep, yet Ghersi’s effortless industrial-leaning ebb can be heard across the mid-portion of that album. He is impressionable, yes. A silent mixer, definitely not.

Although his rise was notably rapid, the varying Arca sounds are not easily created with a few sample packs and some time with Logic and Ableton. Delving back to 2012’s “Manners”, one can hear the groundwork for the dark marches that continue to float triumphantly through Xen’s title track. Ghersi didn’t depart the Yeezus sessions without refining his own production palette, either. His time alongside Gesaffelstein added to his understanding of the space between beats, and the emotive power of these hesitations. The fog of “Failed” slowly consumes the listener, its pitchy synthesized organ as engulfing as a CO2 leak. Fortunately the track is only 3:40 long — the longest cut on the entire album besides the opener, “Now You Know”.

According to Ghersi, it was this type of haze that resulted in the best improvised recording sessions. In that state, he was able to work outside of not only predefined genre expectations (which he was already comfortable with), but his own artistic hangups. When so much of music is now a reaction to what has come before it, and seemingly every electronic offshoot is tagged as “future” or “post,” this unbridled craftsmanship has been in limited supply.

For anyone who knows about Amon Tobin’s cinematic bass exploits, “Now You Know” is Xen’s only unshakable mark. The track sounds like it could fit seamlessly into the Brazilian producers’ “ISAM” live set. One hopes that Ghersi, as a fellow South American, is merely shining light on one of the most underappreciated experimental electronic producers of this generation, just as West has organically supported Ghersi’s ascent.

Without West it is unlikely that the Arca moniker would have peaked much outside of a devout underground following. For Ghersi, as with his fellow young, crossover producers Zhu and Cashmere Cat, it is now about keeping some level of anonymity so he can continue to experiment without all the unfounded negative criticism that arrives with social promotions. A focused, inspiring Ghersi promises a more rewarding pop landscape for 2015.

Essential Tracks: “Xen”, “Sisters”, “Family Violence”, and “Fish”