Review: Arca “Xen”

29 Oct 2014 — Henry Schiller

Xen is the debut album from London-based Venezuelan producer Arca (Alejandro Ghersi), a follow-up of sorts to last year’s self-released mixtape &&&&&. Just like &&&&&, Xen might be described as a rollercoaster ride. Xen is a twisting, sputtering loop-de-loop of an album, a structure you cannot appreciate until the harness comes down and the wheels start spinning, with jolts and jumps that cannot be anticipated until it's a moment too late. But Xen differs from &&&&& in a very significant way: Xen has a palpable element of relaxation.

Not to say that the music of Xen is itself particularly relaxing. If anything, Xen is more anxious and discomfiting than its more aggressive forebear. But Xen is an album produced by someone who is comfortable enough to step slightly away from the vicious – and brilliant – style of production that got him work on albums by heavy hitters like Kanye West and Bjørk. To bring yourself down from that takes a heaping of “Zen” most people do not have access to.

Xen is not, like the also excellent &&&&& was, a literal projection of tension and hunger. But it does meditate on these and similar topics. Xen is thoughtful and thought-out, at times even solemn (see “Failed” and “Wound”), coming closer to the work of Tim Hecker or Oneohtrix Point Never than the maddash hacking of Ghersi’s earlier work.

Album highlight “Family Violence” is a soft calamity of synthesized strings, each distinct track of which slithers separately, unsure of which direction in which to pull another. “Family Violence” plays off of the quiet discomfort of its own title remarkably well. Though initially evocative of the kind of thing you might imagine takes place between belligerent spouses in the foyer of a stately home, circa 1915 (think Downton Abbey with more drinking problems), I could imagine the track being remarkably effective set to a particularly brutal scene in a British kitchen sink drama. Like the rest of Xen, “Family Violence” takes an uncomfortable topic and presents it in all the disturbing ease with which it invades our daily lives.

Tracks like “Wound” and “Held Apart” also play around with the unaltered use of synthesized classical instruments. Instead of warping these parts with massive amounts of distortion and technical trickery, Ghersi lets them slide off the rails on their own. On each track, as with “Family Violence”, the instrumentation is offset only slightly, but in a way that still manages to disturb its own civility enough to suggest a depravity lurking underneath the surface.

“Sisters”, another personal favorite, is more of an explosion. A grasping, lashing evocation of some Christmastime frenzy. A ducked head on the London underground, on its way home; dreading the cold, dreading, perhaps, getting home in time to find a scene of chaos. Xen speaks up for the soft insanity of the everyday, which cannot find its own voice. To the madness and rapturous chaos that lurks beneath relaxing, enjoyable things.

No track on Xen is over four minutes long, suggesting an air of creative agitation even in the midst of obvious and profound personal comfort. The contrast, which serves as a foundational basis for the album, is an important and brilliantly utilized one. The album seems to draw heavily from underscore music, television programs of the early to mid 1990s transferred onto VHS by hapless parents.

Arca’s debut full-length is an excellent display of versatility from the producer. From the hectic bombast of &&&&& comes a calculated, composed ode to what lurks under the skein of banality. Xen is an album built on polarities. It is complex and heady, but Xen is also an easy listen, and a very navigable album. If &&&&& is the striking of a match then Xen is the candle slowly burning. If &&&&& was the blister bursting, then Xen is the callous that slowly builds around the raw skin it left behind.

Xen is out November 3 on Mute.