Adam Harper Recommends Arca’s <i>Xen</i>

Words by Adam Harper

Xen is Arca’s hotly-anticipated new LP. It’s also the artist’s feminine alter-ego bubbling with cyborg sensuality. Adam Harper unpacks the complex digital biology that spawned this strange and inviting beast.

For at least two years, Arca has been a name carrying extreme promise. All we really knew was that the producer was in his early twenties, is called Alejandro Ghersi, is from Venezuela, was based in New York but now lives in London, and is affiliated with UNO NYC’s label network of avant-bizarre voices, including Mykki Blanco, Fatima Al Qadiri, and Gobby. One run-of-the-mill web interview didn’t quite manage to live up to the twisted alien hip-hop of his Stretch 1 and Stretch 2 EPs for UNO, and after that, Ghersi withdrew from press attention.

During that silence, Arca burrowed right into the burning edge, producing an expansively beguiling EP for FKA twigs that brought her her first flush of attention, and getting involved in the production of Kanye West’s Yeezus. Now, after these glimpses into other worlds, Arca offers a long, rich, and yet still mercurial performance from an intriguing new creature, Xen.

Xen, says Ghersi, is an alter-ego that has been a part of him since childhood, an androgynous-cum-female personification of his queerness that manifested in games, secret identities, and online personas, and which blossomed again more recently when he came out. She appears on the cover of the album “pleasuring herself” in bright headlights against an abyssal dark, her head tilted back decadently and the flesh of her arms rippling with sensuality.

The image is the work of Jesse Kanda, Ghersi’s long-term collaborator in the visual domain. Since the covers of Stretch 1 and Stretch 2, Kanda has provded an uncanny analogue of Arca’s sound in disturbing yet alluringly flexible 3D-rendered bodies transforming and cavorting in defiance of biology. Arca’s music is the same, full of curves and freedom, bright lights and lurking forms, glistening surfaces and whirling, extended limbs. Together, the pair have built—or better, grown—a new electronic organicism.

Xen initially bears something of a resemblance to the late nineties and early 2000s electronica that Ghersi counts as an influence—Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher—and thus one can see why the producer has worked on Björk’s next album. It’s tempting to hear it the way so much music of Ghersi’s generation has been, as just a disordered echo of a greater past. But Xen has her own motives and comes from a different place. Aesthetically, the album is at a tangent to the stridently strange productions favored by other queer underground acts such as Mykki Blanco, Le1f, and Zebra Katz. Xen is the symphonic version. Or, more probably, it’s a ballet.

Because Xen is a multiplicitous figure. Many tracks contain several life forms coiling around each other, each with its own sense of time and space, all crowded into the same fractious textures and struggling for expression and independence. New limbs and organs burst through the skin, feelers fly in every direction and prehensile tongues curl. Disasters of pleasure, showers of sex. The title track is an electrical injection, with strobes of percussion whipping up a club nimbus as stallions rear their heads and the wreckers come whirling and squeaking over the polished floor; at the center of it all a daughter’s dancing class on a tightrope.

But other tracks are solo portraits, often keyboard improvisations. “Sad Bitch” pliés forward tentative and lonely before exploding into pirouettes and dovetailing melodies. “Family Violence” is a forest of jabbing and pointed fingers. “Promise” shudders and teeters as if shaking off an ice age, and the piano sketch “Held Apart” waits at the windowsill with memories in its big eyes. The parameters of Ghersi’s self-exploration are readjusted with each track, causing constant surprise—dance beats, noise, song, cinematic strings and rave stabs all rotate the album in a space of unexpected dimensions.

Like all LPs of similar weight, Xen can teach the open-minded listener to turn frustrations into pleasures and opportunities. Its ephemerality can slip too easily through the fingers. Of course, that can be blamed on the lamentable millennial attention span if it makes you feel better. But no, Xen is also a lesion in the life of sound and the fruits of instinctual desire. And it might signal a new weird electronica, one intimately acquainted with embodiment and freer than ever in its endless sonic playground.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/2015 edition of Electronic Beats Magazine. To read more from the magazine, click here, and to read our year-end contest regarding the producer, click here