Arca's 'Mutant' traces inspiration from Björk, FKA twigs

Tuesday, November 24, 2015 - 3:48pm

NOSELL

Mute

 

The Venezuelan producer Alejandro Ghersi, known as “Arca,” works on the edge of reality. When he teamed up with the celestial artist Björk to produce her album Vulnicura, he described it as a natural fit. Musically, this makes sense: both artists create coded and complex music, and the emotions attached are difficult to identify. Longing is the general theme of Vulnicura, but Björk’s longing is far more alien and nuanced than the emotion we typically describe it as. Delicately balancing cosmic production and affecting string arrangements, she walks the line between our world and the beyond. A new version of the album, Vulnicura Strings, strips away everything but the strings and the vocals — a humanizing move for the enigmatic artist.

Arca’s new album Mutant is the sonic antithesis to Vulnicura Strings. Gentle orchestras are replaced with huge industrial sounds. Where Björk sings, Arca roars.  It’s an angry departure from Earth. 

But while Vulnicura Strings and Mutant are musical opposites, they feel similar. Both grow and contract like living, breathing creatures. This kind of contradiction is what Arca thrives on. The most vulnerable track on the album, “Gratitud,” uses a harsh metallic tone to create warmth. “F*ggot” is both delicate and severe, mixing dance music synths and industrial tones with peaceful bells and choir. It’s an attempt to take ownership of the derogatory term and attach a positive connotation to it, much like hip hop has done with “n*gga.”

Much of Mutant deals with (while never actually vocalizing) this struggle over sexuality. Arca said that he had a difficult time accepting he was gay, a truth brewing quietly inside until reaching a cathartic roar. Opening track “Alive” marches with this confident defiance, looking his demons in the face and embracing them. The cathartic roar takes form in “En,” a song that grows and churns to climax in a beastly growl. This is the frightening cry of a man who has been restrained and outcast for too long — a mutant, you could say. Even during his most visceral moments, though, Arca never leaves the dark, alien world that Mutant inhabits.

Interestingly, Arca called Mutant a very “social” album. Many of the songs are apparently evocative of a friend or moment in his life. While only Arca can know the personal stories behind these tracks, one thing is clear: Arca has some eccentric friends. Beyond his Björk collaboration, he added production to Kanye’s Yeezus, a number of FKA Twigs’ releases and Kelela’s Hallucinogen, all of which are on the forefront of futuristic music. Traces of these artists are everywhere in Mutant. The terrifying screams from the title track are reminiscent of Kanye’s on “I Am a God.” FKA Twig’s consuming sensuality seeps through tracks like “Front Load” and “Extent.” “Snakes” is a reference to the zodiac symbol Arca and Björk share. 

Compared to his previous releases, Mutant is the most sweeping. The minimalism of his debut album Xen felt like a trip through outer space; Mutant feels like an arrival to a far away planet. Visually, it invokes a futuristic dystopian city (think “Terminator” or “Blade Runner”). Arca has been moving in this direction since the beginning of his career. His earlier, more approachable mixtapes Stretch 1 and Stretch 2 were strongly influenced by hip hop. Stretch 2’s “Brokeup” included vocally altered rap verses that resembled rapper/producer Madlib’s alter-ego Quasimoto. This kind of genre association and vocal presence disappeared as Arca progressed, as did any comfort his music once had. By the time Xen was released, Arca had become a genre to himself, and Mutant expands further into unexplored musical territory. 

Standout tracks like “Vanity” and “Soichiro” plunge you into that dark dystopian world like a bad trip. “Vanity” is particularly mesmerizing, swelling with symbols and high pitched tones that alternate between floating idly and racing like a roller coaster. That said, Mutant is far from an easy listen. It demands stamina and weighs heavily on the listener. It’s also one of the best electronic albums of the year, a major accomplishment in a time of plenty of high-quality releases. Arca has proven himself to be a powerful voice in the future of music.