Monday, November 30, 2015

album review: 'mutant' by arca

When I reviewed Arca's debut album Xen last year, I went in expecting dissonance. I was prepared for harsh blasts of abrasion and intense sounds that would push the bounds of listenability, the sort of experimental electronica that will alienate nearly everyone except the most hardened of critics and fans.

But that wasn't exactly what I got. Arca's distinctive brand of electronica went in a different, yet not less dissonant direction: wild tempo changes, off-kilter melodies, awkward tunings, gorgeous atmosphere and gleaming classical instrumentation contorted through strange, warping progressions. It was the sort of the music that could easily be branded by a classicist as incompetent instead of transcendent, but somehow Arca mostly stuck the landing, even if I did wish that he could pair his bizarre melodic choices with more of a foundation in the actual beats and percussion.

So fast forward to now, and Arca has a new record titled Mutant, which promised to be weirder and darker, even blending in elements of industrial noise music. Now immediately I thought this was a good idea - my favourite track off of Xen had been 'Bullet Chained' because it had managed to fuse that textured atmosphere with a clanking progression that roiled and spooled like the titular tool, and if Arca was going more in that direction, we could get something very strong here. And considering I've spent the majority of this year delving into more abrasive and experimental music than ever before, I was excited to check out Mutant - what did I get?

Well, we sure as hell got something more abrasive and dissonant, that's for damn sure. And it's one of the reasons Mutant is a bit of a frustrating listen, because the central idea is to drive the musical contrast, create songs that aren't so much complete pieces but incomplete, shuddering, half-formed monsters, where you can see every edge and seam marring traditional beauty to reveal something unearthly beneath it. And as you might expect, it's hit-and-miss how often this manages to work, to the point where I actually enjoyed this less than I did Xen, especially as Arca's formula becomes all the more clear with a longer release.

Because here's the thing: the more times I listened through this album in whole, the more that Arca's stabs at blending moments of beauty or control with distortion or arrhythmic progressions seemed to fall towards a structure you could almost predict. While there are songs where Arca draws upon classical instrumentation - most notably a rattling harpsichord tone where the jittery melodic moments feel less composed than improvised, and are a lot less impressive than when Aphex Twin did it on Drukqs - most of this record is deeper and thicker, a cavernous mix for the synths to echo across or the buzzy fragments to splinter and fade away. The bass hits can get heavier - the lumbering booms of 'Mutant' and 'Soichiro', the blubbery bounce of 'Snakes' that will eventually dissolve into the lonely airy blasts of 'Else', the clicking rollick of 'Front Load' that has probably my favourite beat on this record - but sure enough the glassy hollow synths will flood in, either in jagged spurts if the beat is more light and stable, or just as moody accents when the beat is more jagged and rough-edged. And while they might build to moments of clarion beauty or elegance, it's only a matter of time before everything collapses in upon itself into the murk, the mutation finally breaking into inevitable demise.

And what becomes interesting is that for as alien as this record can sound, it doesn't feel 'dark' in a traditional sense. Sure, there are moments of howling cacophony on the title track that reminds me a bit of the internet art film We Are The Strange - in a good way, I might add - or the pitch-shifted vocal fragments of 'En' that develops a bizarre whirling grooves of spikes, or the rattling tension of 'Faggot' that feels all the more brittle, I get no sense of menace from this record. Where an album like Jlin's Dark Energy took its exposed dissonance between classical touches and electronic darkness and paired it with ruthlessly aggressive beats, Mutant never really builds that momentum. It's wobbling and sluggish, with every misshapen step feeling like its wading through a buzzy film of binaural flies or composed on a piano breaking midnote. And sure, I get why Arca might not want a dark atmosphere to colour this record, but it's not like it reaches moments of transcendent beauty either so much as it falls into an awkwardly benign grey zone. And that gets frustrating because when the melodies do build some momentum like on 'Alive' or near the midpoint of the title track or the mournful build to iciness on 'Extent', you realize that Arca could easily drive the dramatic contrast he was looking for with a hint more restraint. I don't mind the awkward shifts in tempo or melodic dissonance or stuttering beats, but again, without a more firmly established foundation, it feels like we're getting fragments of tracks instead of fully formed pieces. And that's before we get to points that just feel half-finished, like the extremely underwhelming closer 'Peonies', all a wallow in muddy dissonant gurgle that never evolves out of it, or the meandering harpsichord on 'Gratitud' that starts promising and does get a little deeper and darker for the midpoint, but feels more like an improvised practice session than an actual song.

And this ties into the awkward question underscoring this record: what it might be trying to say, if anything. Because let's face it: this album's primary appeal is in those contrasting sounds, the warped shuddering mutations of beauty and ugliness. But without a real defined progression from track to track - even despite some tracks flowing into each other, there are some jarring tonal shifts  - there isn't really an arc or momentum to define these mutations beyond vague emotions. And while there are a few sparse moments of wonder or awe, most of it boils to unease or discomfort, less outright revolting or messy than misshapen and alien - you can appreciate the oddity, but beyond that there's little real desire to return. And once you start picking out the patterns in melodic composition and you realize that Arca doesn't have much in his toolset that will bite with a real edge or hit transcendent melodic climax points, it's difficult to pull out more.

In short, what Arca delivers with Mutant feels very much like an extension of Xen - longer, heavier, a little more abrasive in order to drive forward those contrasting moments... and yet the problems are more glaring than ever. While there is more overall cohesion in the production, the album blurs into indistinct jagged blobs of sound with only a few points that actually glitter. And even despite the greater extremes in sound, there are fewer points where we get real pay-off, and I can't help but feel disappointed. For me, it's a solid 6/10 and a slightly reserved recommendation - again, like Xen, you won't hear much else like it, but I'm less convinced than ever that that's actually a good thing, at least this time around.

No comments:

Post a Comment