Tuesday, November 4, 2014

album review: 'xen' by arca

Let's talk a bit about abrasive sounds in music.

It's been a conversation ever since the beginning of recorded music, the artists who are willing to push the boundaries of what are considered traditionally 'acceptable' to the ears of the public. Forget the explosive crunch of metal or the harsh mechanical sounds of industrial or the raw edge of punk or the choppy sampling of early hip-hop, there were points where the distorted guitars of early rock or the experimentation of jazz was too much of a departure for listeners. The evolution of what has been considered traditionally listenable is a growing one, and with every year it seems to expand even further, from the raucous screams of black metal to the harsh blasts of static you get from a group like Clipping to the experimental explosive power of an act like Swans. Hell, there are acts in the power electronics genre that specifically focus on making the most explosive, abrasive, uncomfortable music possible for anyone to listen through.

Now for me, abrasion for its own sake has a place, but I'll also admit that I prefer music to have melody or at least enough texture to justify the usage of the abrasion as a complete piece. Noise without cohesion for its own sake is precisely that - noise. My challenge has always been finding that cohesion within the sound, if indeed it exists - because let's make this clear, this sort of abrasive sound isn't going away any time soon.

This takes us to producer Arca, most well known outside of electronic music circles as working with Kanye West on Yeezus and FKA Twigs on LP1. And going into his full-length debut, I was not precisely sure what was coming. His early work was defined by pitch shifted vocals, eerie synths, and moments that pushed the edges of what was conventionally listenable - in other words, I had a real challenge on my hands. So with a certain amount of hesitation, I checked out his debut album Xen - what did I find?

Well, I definitely didn't expect this. That seems to be a bit of a trend whenever I delve into experimental albums, because while this record is glitchy, abrasive, off-kilter in the extreme, it was so in a way that I wasn't expecting. While some would consider Xen a noisy release, it's not so much noise as it is dissonant, filled with odd melodic progressions, tempo changes, and wild shifts that defy regular ideas of cohesion or groove. What this means is that while I do like Xen more than I expected - believe me, I'm surprised as hell this record managed to connect with me at all - it's a weird as hell album that is hard to recommend to anyone outside of the most dedicated experimental electronic music fans.

The first thing that I need to explain for this review to make any kind of sense is the musical concept of dissonance. As I described earlier, like how popular sensibilities have evolved to accept more abrasive sounds in their music, so have we grown to accept more off-kilter and dissonant chord structures beyond the major fourth and fifth. Because like it or not, there's a place for dissonance in music - creating tension before the release of a conventional melody. Well, Arca's Xen seems designed to push that dissonant tension to the absolute limit with all sorts of melodic progressions that might initially set you on edge, until he breaks it with a more conventional minor or major chord. To make matters even worse, he shifts the melodic tempo wildly within the song, to make what might seem like accessible progressions even harder to take in, especially when placed in contrast with the beats, which are normally one of the few stabilizing influences on the songs. And upon the first few listens, it's very tempting just to see the album as a sloppy, atonal mess, especially considering how many traditionally classical instruments that Arca uses, from strings sections to flutes to harps to emphasize that discordance - instruments this elegant and 'proper' sounding should not sound this off-kilter and twisted, especially when paired with harmonic synths that are so shrill and cutting! And paired with tunings and synth choices that almost seem purposely off-key, it's the sort of composition that could be dismissed as incompetent rather than transcendent.

And yet for me... he falls somewhere in between. I'm not going to deny it gets exasperating when Arca puts together a pretty damn great melodic groove or progression and then chooses to juxtapose it against sounds that seem only to divert from any momentum this album could build. Where Objekt's Flatland was all meticulously constructed with willfully slightly askew rhythms, each piece interlocking together, Arca's Xen's internal connections are much more scattershot when they appear at all. In fact, this record might serve as a solid counterpoint to that other experimental record - one all rhythm and groove, the other shining brightest with interweaving melodies that either flutter or spasm from their respective instruments. And there are some great melodic moments on this album with phenomenal texture that I really did like: I loved the mournful, harpsichord pianos on 'Held Apart' that recalled Aphex Twin, the tentative skittering on 'Sad Bitch' that becomes gloriously decadent in its upper range, the shimmering off-kilter cadence on 'Sisters', the looming sense of unease on 'Family Violence', the sudden tempo drop on 'Lonely Thug' that makes the track even more haunting, the gorgeous strings balanced against the pitch-shifted voice on 'Wound', and the cascading strums on 'Promise' that sounds great against the bass rumble at the same pace with the explosive blast of static coming in just at the right time.

 But for me there are three things holding back Xen from being really something special. The first is some of the production - for the most part, it's gorgeous, but you can tell that the mix balance on the strings is a little hollow, not letting the sound fully swell, and while the reverb does add some necessary depth to this record, it did feel a little overused at points. The second is a matter of some of the beats - for as intricate and detailed as the melodies are, it's a little startling the same attention wasn't given to any of the sparse beats on this album - when they are here, they're leaden and blocky, rarely bringing the same level of finesse or detail or even texture the melody lines have. And this ties into probably my biggest issue with this album as a whole - there are many moments where the album gets in its own way when it comes to a solid groove driven climax, or at least giving these melodies more of a steady backbone off which to ricochet. There are exceptions: the great groove at the end of the title track; 'Thievery', the closest thing to a conventional song this album has with choppy vocal samples, an echoing melody, the sudden stops and starts with the gunshot-like snap that triggers the escalating piano melody on the back half; or the borderline-industrial 'Bullet Chained' that sounds like a rolling spool of chains glancing off of pipes against the most frantic beat yet that breaks into a great explosively heavy synth riff. These songs show just how much promise Arca has with fusing melodic experimentation with textured beats, and yet for every one track like this with propulsive momentum, we get two others that feel languid and don't do enough to earn their atmosphere, like the reverb-swallowed 'Slit Thru', the meandering, organ-heavy and glitchy 'Fish', or the shrill and warped 'Tongue' that barely evolves beyond heavy scratching and a bass melody that can't rise to the surface.

In the end, Xen by Arca reminds me a bit of Aphex Twin's Drukqs flipped in reverse with a focus more on pushing melodic boundaries over beats, most of which is tempered through classical interludes. But if anything Xen is an even weirder release - a shorter, messier blend of a dozens of musical ideas that are frequently fascinating and beautiful with melodic progressions unlike most you'll hear this year, but at the same time it lacks cohesion and momentum and many of the dissonant progressions really lack a true payoff. And yet, those are pretty minor complaints, and with every listen, I find more to really like with this release, which gets a 7/10 from me and a solid recommendation. And while I definitely can't promise this album is for everyone - the off-kilter melodies and tempo changes will make this a difficult listen for many - but I'd argue it manages to work, so definitely check it out.

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