Before dropping his debut album earlier this month, young Venezuelan producer Arca had already put together a hell of a list of collaborators over the last year. Along with FKA Twigs (whose career has since skyrocketed) and Kanye West (who used some of Arca’s work on the divisive Yeezus), Arca has also been working with Bjork on the veteran’s new album. The time is therefore ripe for a commercial breakthrough, so it is to Arca’s credit that he has turned his back on that prospect to create a statement of intent for his first full-length.

And it really is some statement. Xen is full of alien sounds with no obvious touchstones. A couple of tracks here (namely the queasy interlude of “Sad Bitch” and the fuzzy, distorted beats of “Fish”) recall earlier Aphex Twin work, but for the most part, the man known to his parents and friends as Alejandro Ghersi has forged his own path with a work of alluring strangeness. He joins the likes of Ben Frost and Oneohtrix Point Never, who have created idiosyncratic albums of left-field electronica that deserve much greater attention, even if the initial reaction they are likely to provoke is confusion.


Arca does not do half measures. Opener “Now You Know” is disorienting, with a melody that eventually bubbles to the surface but seems to work in conflict with the rest of the song. Only occasionally does it anchor itself with a beat, but for the most part, the track is almost freeform. After the gentle piano interlude of “Held Apart,” the album’s title track is even more startling. A quiet backdrop is swamped by sharp synths that cut through high in the mix with an incisive urgency before everything congeals into a pounding climax.

His most immediate calling card songs on the album are those that display Arca’s potent skill for abstract pop music. “Sisters” and “Slit Thru” both sound settled compared to what has passed before, with a more recognizable mid-tempo and a coming together of already established ideas and mood. “Thievery” and “Lonely Thugg” make an even more impressive double bill, the latter in particular standing out as the album’s apex, a brilliantly stylish tune with the most slender of hooks that ends with a terrific slow breakdown.

Yet Arca’s insistence on restlessly shifting the ground the listener is standing on is clearly on show in one of the tracks that breaks up this run of beat-based music: the unsettling and borderline terrifying horror movie strings of “Family Violence.”

The song titles alone suggest a work wrapped in tension and melancholy, and the music reflects this. On the likes of “Wound,” Arca proves he can make genuinely gorgeous music when he is so moved, but the track’s climax brings the crashing intro of “Bullet Chained,” whose drums accelerate towards another urgent synth line. “Tongue” continues this fascinating push-pull dynamic, with a muted and morphing beat coupled up with high, shrieking strings.

Like Ben Frost’s stunning AURORA earlier this year, Xen clocks in around the 40-minute mark, and also like that album, its amorphous sound regularly appears to be on the verge of falling to pieces. Yet Arca shows an astonishing restraint and maturity for someone whose career is so young.

Xen will not be for everybody (indeed it took me several listens to even begin to get my head around it), but the album marks the arrival of a special talent and a unique voice, and it is likely to be cherished by those who come to terms with its mixture of blunt, sharp angles and nebulous song structures. There’s nothing else like it.

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