Arca Dons a New Spectacular Avant-Pop Persona on ‘KiCK i’

To Venezuelan avant-garde enigma Alejandra Ghersi, “There is no such thing as normal.” Ghersi has a history of subverting and redefining norms. Her 2014 debut “Xen” showcased a cutting edge sound defined by glitch and ambiance. From its inception, the music was about skewing, shifting, transforming. She decided to sing in Spanish on her 2017 self-titled album as Arca, and her last release, “@@@@@” was a single, hour-long track full of wonders. Her most recent transformation extends beyond music, as she came out as nonbinary, and spent the last couple of years transitioning. Now, she presents herself as a popstar from another dimension on an album that is her most accessible work to date, yet as experimental as anything in her oeuvre. “KiCK i,” the first of four planned releases, is named after the prenatal kick that heralds a new consciousness. The emergent form, in this case, is an amalgamation that recognizes sensibilities vaguely hinted at before. With appearances from artists at the very forefront, Ghersi fashions major key pop, reggaeton, and her usual abstractions into an exhilarating gestalt. 

Lead single “Nonbinary” is the sonic equivalent of the album’s cover art, which depicts Ghersi scantily clad, stilted, and fastened to black and chrome sci fi appendages in a monochrome space. Ghersi dons her sassiest voice over a minimal beat of metal clinks and squeaks. At once, the new sound recalls the style of fellow electronic enigma Sophie, who appears elsewhere on the album. Another audible antecedent is Peaches, particularly her song “Serpentine.” This is the most accessible Ghersi has ever sounded, but she keeps things off-kilter with erratically whimsical percussion. An ascending melody takes root, each successive note teasing you as Ghersi struts into uncharted territory, veering off unexpectedly in an atonal direction. It’s the beginning of a wild ride.

At one point, Ghersi jeers, “Speak for your self-states,” a statement that speaks volumes. For her, transitioning is only the beginning. She shifts shapes sporadically, freely assuming different sonic personas. The metallic splatter of “Nonbinary” dissipates into iridescent haze on “Time.” A bright, bouncy synth pulse keeps the pace, and Ghersi fills the space with hovering vocals and her signature amorphous washes of sound. There are oceanic textures and momentous swells that sweep and thrust, at odds with the dogged persistence of the beat, as Ghersi urges, “It’s time / To let it out.” It comes out on “Mequetrefe,” which picks up where the opener left off, this time more chaotic, and with the cheeky bravado continued in Spanish. The title is a derogatory term, roughly translating to “good for nothing,” that Ghersi turns to her favor and owns. Razor-sharp snares, sliced vocals, and gusts of industrial noise make for a reggaeton stomp from an alternate universe.

“Riquiqui” descends further into this strange sonic space. Ghersi fashions a dance floor-ready beat out of an abstract assemblage, bombarding you with percussive splatters, and rapping like a madman in an unhinged rant, blowing a kiss at one point, in between vaguely risque Spanish. There’s a frenetic, tribal stomp of heavy breaths and creaking, rotating metal machinery, by the end of which she is screaming, for some reason, about a cat in slow motion. The rampage gives way to more familiar sounds on “Calor,” which develops into a majestic, amorphous spectacle. The ingenious, expressive sound design that was Ghersi’s original claim to fame is on full display as she bellows away, head in the clouds, and goes in, midway, for the grand chorus, erupting into a full-fledged, operatic performance, soaring like never before.  

Ghersi made hefty contributions to Bjork’s last two albums, and there could hardly be a more natural pair than the two eccentric visionaries. Bjork returns the favor on “Afterwards.” Fans will recognize her distinctive phrasing, as bits of her meandering melodies recall “Aurora” and other old songs. Ghersi joins in a breathy, low register, and the song develops into a lush soundscape. Although not exactly the marvel one might expect from such a hyped collaboration, it’s an evocative meeting of minds. “Watch” brings back the beat, as Ghersi again nods to Sophie, particularly her definitive 2014 single “Hard.” What Sophie’s PC Music peer GFOTY contributed to that song is here carried out masterfully by London’s Shygirl. Ghersi pulls out the IDM chops, sandblasting jagged shards, repurposing war machinery for dance music. The controlled chaos is exhilarating. In Ghersi’s world, everything is considerably abstracted, so standard descriptors hardly suffice, but there’s a “break” to trigger a wide-grinning headrush for anyone tuned in. 

DJ Python has drawn acclaim for pioneering a sort of IDM reggaeton, but Arca’s “KLK” makes Python sound like Daddy Yankee. If you could pry a dembow beat apart at every bar, dismantle and scramble it, then twist it back together, you’d get something like the basis for this warped party track. Spanish sensation Rosalía lends her feisty vocals, as Ghersi plays hype man, and the combination of glitchy complexity and Latin festivity makes for a riot of a track. “Rip the Slit” keeps the party going with the titular phrase repeated, footwork style, over a distorted, bass-heavy beat. The pitched-up vocals, maddening repetition, and glitches make a bona fide mockery of dance music that hits harder than anything yet. “La Chiqui” stomps to a beat that recalls camera-flash celebrity bombrushes and spazzing fax machines. Sophie joins Ghersi now, and brings her usual shtick, with a sexualized automaton speaking over an oblique arrangement full of collisions and close calls. Fans of Squarepusher and Holly Herndon-style, obsessive tinkering will rejoice. This is a masterpiece with an amount of detail that no number of listens can fully penetrate.

“Machote” brings a welcome break from the onslaught. Ghersi tries on another shape, applying her usual textural complexity and quirk to a more conventional structure, striking a successful balance. She interpolates the refrain of Latin Dreams’ 2003 song “Quiero Una Chica,” but changes “una chica” to “un Machote” or “a big macho,” making for a queer anthem of sorts. Finally, Ghersi’s voice takes the spotlight on “No Queda Nada,” an effusive love song on which she sings “There is nothing left in me… But you.” A beat anchors her musings and mutating sounds, and the track takes on a trip-hop form, with all Ghersi signature traits on display, but now finally fallen into an elegant balance. 

On “KicK i,” Ghersi cooks up a deliciously strange stew. She keeps the best of company, with features that share and manifest her visions. The album runs through mist and hailstorms, down winding staircases with uneven steps. You’ll drift away, get lost in haze, plummet levels, race manically, and skip heartbeats. It’s a triumphant debut for Ghersi’s new feisty pop persona, and an amalgamation of latent proclivities. Ghersi’s  most experimental move yet might be adopting a brazen raciness that never makes it into music so blatantly weird. The confidence in her new hip-hop-type feminine swagger matches the boldness of her continued madcap sonic experimentation. The new record marks a realization of the fluidity that always characterized Ghersi’s music, and Ghersi’s glitched-out take on reggaeton makes for some of the most deliriously intense, warped dance music ever. This is what happens when the avant garde goes pop. 

KiCK i” is available June 26 on Apple Music.