Must a Mutant Be Beautiful?
by James Christensen
Mutant, the second full length record produced by the New York-dwelling art house electronica wunderkind Arca, isn’t beautiful music. Actually, there are sections of the album that are conspicuously ugly, nasty and unsettling. Sure, there are musical elements at play in the work—there are chords, melodies, percussive textures, sometimes even beats, most of which could loosely be identified as hailing from US hip-hop or jungle roots. But Arca buries them so deep within the mesh of his frenetic textures and distortions that it takes a few listens for you to even begin to hear how the tracks are operating from a music-theory standpoint.
The beauty in Arca’s music definitely isn’t skin deep. But hey, come to that, who said music was supposed to be beautiful anyway? Maybe what’s required to approach this album is a radical revision of what aesthetic beauty even means in musical terms. And that’s exactly what Mutant (2015) sets out to do from its very first moments.
The record opens with the sound of shattering glass, paired with random and aggressive arpeggiated synth chords spitting themselves up out of grimy filters and dense reverb. ‘Alive’ plays like the soundtrack to some alien birth. It’s messy, rapturous, lush and revelatory. I needed three listens just to lock onto the soaring counter-melody punched out on a sharp synth lead and obscured by all the other sound and fury. Ultimately, nestled within the raucous echo and noise of the track, there is a consistent sense of wonder to the music. I’ve never heard anyone make synthesised sounds seem more like organic matter. Arca‘s synths throb and pulse with a life-force that feels utterly untameable, as if they’re poised at any moment to melt into nothing but static.
Which they do, as a matter of fact. The second track on the record, ‘Mutant’, begins with what sounds like pure feedback, blaring from some malfunctioning equipment and swelling in large waves. Eventually this grinding pulse becomes a long, drawn-out scream. If ‘Alive’ is a glorious bursting-forth into the world, ‘Mutant’ is a child’s violent realisation of its own abnormality. I’m always reminded of Frankenstein’s creature, stumbling out into the wilderness and finding that the world considers it repulsive.It makes for uneasy listening and sets the tone for a lot of what follows.
Arca has spoken before about the psychological pressures of growing up queer in an overwhelmingly conservative Venezuelan community before moving to New York at the age of 17 and coming out as gay. With his flatmate and visual collaborator Jesse Kanda, he creates artworks that reflect a fraught relationship with the experience of embodiment and with the body itself. Uncanny human figures and dark, lurid sexuality characterise their preoccupation with a particular form of self-expression.With track titles like ‘Vanity’, ‘Sinner’, ‘Umbilical’ and ‘Faggot’, Arca very explicitly engages with delineations of ‘abnormality’ and the fear, self-loathing and almost neo-gothic terror resulting from their internalisation.
In this sense, Mutant typifies the way that liminal communities can use artistic mediums to forcibly rearticulate the acceptable boundaries of aesthetic pleasure. The record is composed in such an unsettled way that you never quite expect its instincts and can pretty easily dismiss it off-hand. In fact, Arca seems to want you to reject it on first listen.
In a Guardian interview he declared his aspiration to write music that you don’t love the first time you listen to it but listen to ten times and only then begin to recognise yourself in it. Mutant flaunts its own malformation, daring you to pursue it down the rabbit-hole and search for its beauty. Which is absolutely there, it should be stressed. Mutant contains some of the most virtuosic and moving composition for electronic instruments I’ve ever encountered (special mention goes out to the Björk-inspired ‘Snakes’, a dark baroque gem of ingenious electronica). But it’s so elusive and achingly strained that you might never even know it’s there.
Even trying writing about the album feels very much like a fraught enterprise. Everything about how the record chooses to communicate itself is geared towards accessing emotions and states of being so distorted and unreal that language can’t adequately contain them. Mutant is a stream of ‘not-quite’s, hovering on the margins of several different states and statements all at once. It’s fitting then that the record should first-and-foremost attack the body, mangling our ear-drums, dragging us through states of shock, discomfort, relief and rapture. The music works on the senses. It rarely relaxes into a coherent direction long enough for you to catch your bearings but careens unstably towards a new thought or mood. What could more eloquently express the experience of contemporary marginalisation than pop music which is bursting at its seams, uncontainable by standard pop structure or vernacular?
In reading Arca‘s interviews, I’m always struck by his repetitive use of the word ‘free’. It seems so fitting. I think it’s ultimately a sense of freedom that Mutant is so passionately pursuing. It tries to free itself from words, from pop form, but most of all from the shackles of what is popularly categorised as ‘beautiful’ music. Mutant is a provocation played out on the level of music itself, articulating its subversion of heteronormative ideals within the wordless, embodied act of musical engagement. It’s a hugely ambitious piece and one which more than earns the potency of its message.
James is a musician and theatre maker living in Melbourne. He composes and plays music with his band Diana’s Foresters, and enjoys writing in his spare time. You can find his band on Facebook with @dianasforesters