Over the past few years, Arca (a.k.a. Alejandro Ghersi) has quickly become the poster boy for a clued-in generation of internet producers who pay equal regard to DJ Mustard and Daniel Lopatin. Back in 2011, the Venezuelan immigrant's first major effort was a download-only mixtape (consisting entirely of his own material) that came via web 2.0 mouthpiece DIS magazine. His twisted Stretch releases—which did exactly that to hip-hop forms—followed, as did last year's &&&&&, but it all felt a bit slapdash before Ghersi leveled up and started working with Kanye West, FKA Twigs, Kelela, and now, Bjork. Somehow, Arca has ascended from deviantART to working with the defining artists of our time—it's a Horatio Alger tale for the Ableton set. His solo debut, Xen, arrives on Mute, and comes amid a flurry of press in which the young producer has spoken frankly about his sexuality and stated that Xen is a sexless alter-ego that emerges when he's high. Without question, it's an arty concept album from an musician who's crept more than halfway into the mainstream, but it's also Ghersi's most gorgeous, personal work to date.
Those expecting a futuristic beat-tape would be better off opting for one of Arca's earlier releases or dipping into Software Recordings' stable of young producers. This is a piano record. Arca studied the instrument for years before growing bored of it and downloading some production software at the age of 14. Still, he hasn't lost his chops. There is a constant synth patch on Xen, a slight, quicksilver sound which showcases Ghersi's highly dynamic playing while wisping along like mercury in a toy maze. On "Held Apart" and "Failed," he assuredly switches between minor and major keys, coaxing beatless beauty that recalls the work of Erik Satie, Chilly Gonzales on his Solo Piano records, or even Richard D. James on tracks like Drukqs' "Penty Harmonium." It's stunning how Ghersi is able to contain an entire universe within short and skeletal songs.
Indeed, his work with roommate and longtime creative partner Jesse Kanda, along with an interest in anime soundtracks, imbue the largely instrumental album with a vivid narrative. The best examples are the aforementioned "Failed," which embodies an inner world of remorse, and the remarkable "Family Violence," which arranges brash strings into a cacophonous, pitch-bent symphony. "Would" is the only track where vocals emerge, although they are essentially incomprehensible, a vocodered series of coos that's present for texture alone. It's a more alien take on the 808s & Heartbreak sound, a more languorous version of Future's sad-boy ballads. The end of "Fish" is similarly otherworldly, coming across like Fennesz's masterful Endless Summer reimagined as amusement park muzak.
Most of these pieces lack traditional percussion, and while Xen does have some beat tracks, they can feel overstuffed and slightly wooden in comparison. Apart from a thrilling melodic break, "Xen" is a slog through leftfield trap cliches. "Tongue" aims to willfully test the listener's patience and could come from forgettable section of an Opal Tapes release. For a concept album, closing track "Promise" and its dissolve into feedback is a particularly unsatisfying ending. It feels like Ghersi didn't know how to conclude the record and quickly dropped a curtain on the whole ambitious affair.
That said, the album's shortcomings do little to detract from its overall impact. Where Ghersi was once celebrated as a mutant hip-hop innovator, his solo work no longer seems as interested in that sound. After all, he has real stars to work with now, so on Xen, he's decided to let his freak flag fly. What he's given listeners may be imperfect, but it's also freakishly musical, completely synthetic, and utterly human.