If you haven’t heard of Alejandro Ghersi (aka Arca) yet, you’ve probably heard of some work with which he has been involved. He helped produce four of the darkest “Yeezus” (2013) tracks with Kanye West, worked as a producer on FKA Twigs’ “EP2” (2013) and is slated to co-produce Bjork’s next album. And on Nov. 4, he released “Xen,” a debut album all his own. But get this: He’s only 24.
Hailing from Caracas, Venezuela, Ghersi made his mark in 2012 with three EPs, “Barón Libre,” “Stretch 1” and “Stretch 2.” He later sent West the “strangest music” he had in preparation for Yeezus, and was on his way. His sounds are hypnotic, experimental, challenging, elusive — all fully embodied in the futuristic and innovative “Xen.”
“Xen” is ambiguous. Completely electronic, it slows, speeds, halts and continues all while climaxing towards an undisclosed something, although you’ll never know quite what that will be. It’s a complete album in a way that it’s a complete experience — the work requires concentrated listening track by track, as it builds from a strong opener “Now You Know”, calms with an almost painful “Failed” and reestablishes its full-throttle vivacity with “Thievery.” Each track abounds with synthesizer and syncopated reggaeton beats, both surreal and elegant. And while the first few seconds of “Sad Bitch” might sound like the intro to a great dance floor DJ set … well, sorry. It’s obvious within moments that it’s definitely not.
There is something lingering under the surface of Ghersi’s rough, robotic sounds that makes them increasingly interesting to hear. He is not setting out to spoon feed audiences the next radio hit, he’s going to push them, maybe watch them struggle a little bit, while listeners experience something truly new. The album is a juxtaposition between hard and soft –-“Sad Bitch” is a bit sorrowful, yet a bit optimistic. Brought to life by staccato beats, it removes itself altogether from any type of time signature. While “Sad Bitch” leans toward the more minimalist side of the spectrum (for Ghersi, that is), “Bullet Chained” is gritty and intensifies to a pulse-pounding climax, sounding similar to a video game soundtrack.
The juxtaposition of soft and hard beats and stuttering rhythm that Ghersi incorporates into each of his tracks on “Xen” seems to be indicative of his love for all that is cryptic. “Xen” will throw listeners into the unknown and, perhaps, leave them a bit unsettled by the end of the album’s 39 minutes. And while Ghersi’s ambiguity may not be easy listening, it is certainly challenging. Apparently, it’s good for the brain, too.
“The only thing that mattered to me with ‘Xen’ was setting things up against each other in an uncomfortable way,” Ghersi told Vogue in an interview. “If there’s a really soft piece of music and then you’re hit by a painful explosive sound, your brain does this funny somersault trying to make sense of why this happened. And at that very moment your brain is malleable. When you’re uncomfortable, that’s when you learn something new about yourself. That was my only goal.”
Ghersi seeks to subvert expectations. And in “Xen,” he succeeds. Any preconceived notions of the album will be shot down within the first minute or two. “Xen” operates outside of conventional time signatures and melodies, its dissonance filled with radical beats. And conventions of music are not the only system Ghersi seeks to subvert: “Xen” is named for his genderless alter-ego of sorts, a persona that he says embodies the combination of masculinity and femininity that all of us may have somewhere within ourselves. Ghersi attempts to transcend systems of gender, music and beyond, creating a space of self-exploration for both himself and each of his listeners.
“Xen” is about disorientation. As Ghersi said, the album is “a metaphor for anything that someone might have a difficult time understanding about themselves.” After a full listen, listeners may feel unhinged, and probably in terms other than just time and space. And, that’s exactly the point. But don’t worry, “Xen” explores such a range of emotion that if you feel you’ve suddenly been engulfed in darkness, the next track will guide you back toward the light.