April 7th was a day marked on my proverbial calendar since the beginning of the year, because it was the release date for the new Father John Misty album. I had long speculated that that 80 minute LP would be among the strongest records not just of 2017, but of the decade. While I’m still figuring out exactly how I feel about it, it’s safe to say it wasn’t exactly the 100% slam dunk I was expecting. However, another release from April 7th has taken me by complete surprise and is currently my pick for the high water mark this year in music.
Arca is the artistic pseudonym of Venezuelan Alejandro Ghersi, who was educated in New York and is now based out of London. After releasing a string of very well-received electronic releases over the past three years, united by their dark, unsettling production and red and black, fleshy, creepy aesthetic, as well as producing for Bjork, Kanye, FKA Twigs and even Frank Ocean, the twenty-six year-old has returned with his strongest LP to date, and one that sets itself apart from his discography by heavily featuring his own vocals, sung entirely in his native Spanish.
Arca is an immersive album, incredibly detailed and layered, made by one of the best and most inventive electronic producers in the game in his absolute prime. The songs are very carefully arranged, abstract, surrealist soundscapes, but they never feel cluttered. There aren’t a million synths holding out single notes. Ghersi is careful to leave plenty of open space, especially on the record’s slower, more ambient tracks. There is almost no percussion, no drum machine. This is not a dance album in the slightest. The songs are longing and romantic, and Spanish is the perfect language to encapsulate the torture and beauty present in the themes. With almost no harmonies or vocal overdubs, Ghersi’s singular voice, covered in natural echo and reverb, sounds like it’s coming straight out of an ancient stone monastery or cathedral.
Kicking off with ‘Piel’, which features only some high pitched notes alongside Gerhi’s soft, surprisingly capable falsetto, he sings of wishing to shed his skin and awake a new person, a sentiment perhaps reflective of his struggle to come out as gay. Deep bass envelops the vocals in the song’s final third, and we’re on to standout ‘Anoche’, which features a lyric sheet and vocal performance that feels like it could have come out of an 18th century Spanish opera. “Anoche yo soñé Nuestra muerte simultánea / Anoche yo lloré / De felicidad, qué extraño me sentí [Last night I dreamt / Of our simultaneous death /Last night I cried / Out of happiness]” he sings as shuffling rhythms, compiled from unknowable instruments, mingle with delicate pianos. The record then moves to ‘Saunter’, which hisses, crackles and squeals from all sides before Ghersi comes through with a stronger, more defiant vocal performance, reiterating a line from ‘Piel’: “Quítame la piel de ayer [Take my skin off from yesterday]”.
The record delves further into dark, explosive, industrial territory on ‘Urchin’, which sounds like a steam-punk-esque, underwater factory pumping out synth blast after blast. Lonely pianos take back the reigns briefly before the song erupts in an epic climax. ‘Urchin’ is also one of several purely instrumental tracks, which offer a chance for Ghersi to put certain impressive production tricks and instrumental effects front and center. ‘Reverie’ (which comes with a rather artistic and unsettling music video), doesn’t let up on the gas, again delving into bombastic, devastating territory with each crackling fourth beat bigger and more expansive than the last. ‘Castration’ is pummeling, offering tense anticipation in the form of zig-zagging synths before destroying the listener with a flurry of beats that arrive like jabs to the face.
The midpoint of the record is ‘Sin Rumbo’, which offers a breather of sorts. The airy production, while still plenty terrifying, makes way for Ghersi’s incredible operatic skills, as he reaches higher and higher to sing still longingly about unrequited love: ‘Desde la distancia te añoraré / Camino sin rumbo [From a distance I will yearn for you / I walk aimlessly]”. The follow-up, ‘Coraje’, continues in this vein, opting for sparse, celestial synths and vibraphone variants to accompany the record’s most bizarre and surreal vocal performance.
The eye of the hurricane of the record’s center is immediately displaced by the album’s most abrasive track, ‘Whip’, which very prominently features the ominous and frightening sound of whips cracking all over the sound spectrum. The record falls onto a climax of sorts with ‘Desafío’, one of the most insisting and melodic tracks, and one with an honest to goodness verse-chorus structure. Followup ‘Fugaces’ continues in this anthemic style, and is even uplifting in the face of the album’s continuing theme of pining for a lover from a past so distant it feels more like a dream, with Ghersi singing “Que desilusión / Que solo me quedan / Recuerdos fugaces / Tus ojos de luto [What a disappointment / That I only have / Fleeting memories / Your eyes of mourning“. The penultimate ‘Miel’ is somber and pleading, the final chance Gerhi takes to speak to the object of his affections, before the record ends with the beautiful, glitchy ‘Child’, the musical soundtrack to walls of stained-glass shattering into a million pieces in slow motion.
If Arca was purely instrumental, it would still be a triumph. The fact that Ghersi has such a wonderful voice, which so well accommodates his haunting, harrowing music, and sings in a language that does so well to express feelings of sadness, love and disillusionment, sets this record far apart from all his emotional ambient counterparts. Add in the fact that the album is thematic and features two distinctive sides – the challenging and riveting front, the grandiose and atmospheric back – and you have the makings one of the year’s best albums and a new name to place at the top of the genre, if he wasn’t already there. This is one of the best producers in the game taking a compositional risk that pays off massive dividends while failing to compromise what garnered his acclaim in the first place. My only gripe with the record is the feeling that the more engaging production work on the front side sets the bar so high that the slower, come-down back side is slightly less exciting. That aside, Arca is excellent, and I very highly recommend it.
Score: 11 / 13