Arca: Kick ii, iii, iiii, iiiii review – a wild ride to the dark, daring side of pop

·5 min read

For the best part of a decade, Alejandra Ghersi Rodriguez has built her career as Arca on a kind of idiosyncratic, confrontational maximalism. Her signature style involves densely woven tapestries of warped electronics, seemingly designed to engulf the listener. The accompanying visuals are similarly extravagant, featuring Arca as a grotesque pillar-box red mutant, or with prosthetic appendages and flame-throwers for arms, or as a naked, androgynous being attached to the bonnet of a car with a series of terrifying-looking mechanical devices. The latter appeared accompanying Arca’s 2020 single @@@@@: a solitary track that was 62 minutes long. Last year, she released the first “official remixes” of her material: 100 of them, at once, all of the same song. Arca, you get the feeling, does not place a tremendous amount of store by the theory that less is more.

Her latest release feels similarly overwhelming. She recently announced three new albums, follow-ups to 2020’s Grammy-nominated KiCk i, to be released simultaneously. It turns out there are actually four: KICK ii, KicK iii, kick iiii and kiCK iiiii (released as a surprise today) that between them amount to 44 songs and 135 minutes of music. It’s a lot to take in, but that isn’t a shock given her previous form. What is surprising is that this is her most obviously pop-focused and straightforward music to date.

It isn’t all like that. She bills KicK iii as “mutant club music” – the kind that seems designed to soundtrack that moment in the small hours when your indulgences overwhelm you, where everything blurs and spins out of control. It’s a restless, challenging listen – beats that sound like gunfire, churning and gibbering electronic noise. She distorts her vocals in ways that sometimes remind you of Prince as his female alter-ego Camille, or the helium samples of old hardcore, though they generally sound quite nightmarish. Señorita appears to be Arca’s oblique answer to the plea of one fan during a lockdown livestream, who wanted her to “MAKE VOGUE MUSIC PLEEEEEASE”: it recalls both Timbaland’s work with Missy Elliot and the fierce strain of 90s New York house embodied by Ride Committee’s Get Huh! or Tronco Traxx’s Walk for Me. At the other extreme, you could bill kiCK iiiii as Arca’s take on ambient music, although it follows Aphex Twin’s interpretation of the genre, where moments of blissed-out loveliness coexist with disquiet: Amrep’s long, slow descent into distorted darkness, for example; the sense of prickly unease that lurks behind Fireprayer’s twinkling melody.

KICK ii, however, is based largely around reggaeton rhythms, which crossed over from Puerto Rican clubs to mainstream pop a long time ago. The album scrapes away the familiarity the sound has accrued over the years – the icy synths and distorted voices of Rakata; the frantic, panicky-sounding Tiro – something it also succeeds in doing to the voice of power-ballad queen Sia on Born Yesterday. It starts out floating her vocals, singing a very Sia-esque melody, over soft electronics, but gradually ratchets up the tension and chaos: the rhythms chatter, a relentless house kick drum fades in, a plethora of warped noises start to crowd her out. It’s a brilliant reimagining of 21st-century pop as a space in which the traditional and experimental can cohabit.

kick iiii runs with that idea. Boquifloja sets Arca’s voice over a downtuned guitar riff that feels faintly grungy: its chorus is simultaneously beautiful and unnerving, the music slurring in and out of tune, the vocals glitching and stammering. Xenomorphgirl takes another familiar sound, Auto-Tuned sprechgesang vocals, and maroons them in an alien electronic landscape that keeps shifting from calming to threatening. Queer feels like pop music dreamed up by a science-fiction author to set the scene in a future world: the message of Planningtorock’s vocal is strident – “Queer power! Queer power!” – but the sound is both epic and decayed: it sounds like everything was recorded with the needles in the red, the beats very occasionally slipping out of time.

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It goes without saying that “pop” and “straightforward” are relative terms in Arca’s world: not a note of this music would make it within striking distance of Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits playlists, although said playlists might be more interesting if it did. The fact that Arca’s forays into pop arrive amid a torrent of more leftfield material possibly tells you something about her own vexed relationship with the mainstream. Before she was Arca, Rodriguez was Nuuro, a teenage alt-pop star in her native Venezuela, who found herself “betraying” her own identity by making more heteronormative music in pursuit of popularity. “I had to go on a pilgrimage and almost repent,” she told the Guardian a few years ago, explaining her subsequent approach. Clearly, this time around, any movement in a more commercial direction has to be conducted entirely on her own take-it-or-leave-it terms. Her version of pop is rich and imaginative enough that you should take it, or at least spend the time sifting through it.

This week Alexis listened to

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Spindly electric guitars over a beat inspired by techstep drum and bass, a great chorus: what used to be called indie music reimagined, imaginatively.

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