REVIEW: Arca, Arca

Review by Mo Hafeez

Unsettling, dark, and almost celestial at times, Arca has carved out an instantaneously recognisable sound that has been utilised by the likes of FKA twigs, Kanye West, and Bjork – the recently released video for album-track ‘Desafío’, a dystopian tale hinting towards Alejandro Ghersi’s coming-to-terms with his homosexuality, only serves to back up such introducing words for the Venezuelan artist.

This is not to say that the album is not an exciting sonic experience. The moments of despair crafted on various tracks are contrasted with truly beautiful highlights, many of which are brought about through a medium that has been less explored in Ghersi’s past discography – his voice. He in fact credits Bjork for pushing and persuading him to sing on the record.

The haunting humming introduction on opener ‘Piel’ which transforms effortlessly into a solemn telling of personal metamorphosis, the powerful command of falsetto and surprisingly deep normal register of his voice spring forth in the following track, and ‘Saunter’ with an operatic call-back. Within the first ten minutes of the album Arca shows range that was not expected by many at all.

There’s a new found confidence in his vocal ability, but this does not withdraw from the emotion which it brings, strong and accessible despite being sung in Spanish for much of the time. This perhaps stems from the artist allowing the listener to hear sounds of inhalation, small groans, almost whimpering in some areas. It’s a very human touch, added to otherworldly sounds, painstakingly crafted. On previous efforts it was very easy to get lost in walls of noise and reverb, but it’s not the case here. Having a knowledge of Spanish would only add to the already cathartic feeling of the vocals, his spinning of Venezuelan folk songs, talks of changing skin, of lovers lost.

This is what makes the juxtaposition presented on the album so stark, so raw – the real contrast comes with the instrumental side of the project. Percussion comes in industrial and unconventional forms, snares being left by the wayside, scratches, whooshes, static, glitches, and rattles being the preferred weapons of choice. ‘Castration’ provides a strong example of this, stuttering and non-linear bursts which slowly swell and take the fore on top of synthesisers searching for direction and piano arpeggios.

‘Whip’ presents literally just that, lashes manipulated in sometimes melodic fashion, sandwiching what is made to feel like a restarting machine or robot of some sort, a thing of epic proportions, perhaps a metaphor for Ghersi himself, his struggles with identity. The fact that this follows the comparatively solemn piano ballad ‘Corjae’, which features soaring vocals, and is then followed itself by anthemic and heart-breaking crescendos in ‘Desafio’ and ‘Fugaces’, only heightens this fluidity.

Arca represents an effort that is truly intimate. At times it feels as if the listener is alone with Ghersi, in a cathedral size room, as he performs for no one but the listener. We are allowed to witness the constant battling that Ghersi feels within himself, providing moments of undeniable beauty, but also moments which can make your skin crawl. Filled with surprises and difficult to stop once you’ve started, this album is a must for anyone wanting a breath of fresh air in the genre.