Noise Pop for Mutants

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Arca in 2019.
Wikimedia Commons/Marcwncs

Remember the anger about Autotune in the 2010s? Jay-Z’s attempt to banish it from hip-hop with “DOA (Death of Autotune)”? It worked about as well as keeping distortion pedals away from rock guitarists. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that altering the “natural” voice is one of the key markers of contemporary pop. It did not begin with Autotune. Back in the ‘60s, naysayers complained that reverb helped camouflage tuneless vocals. The vocoder ran through late ‘70s/early ’80s funk. When Kanye West used Autotune to give him a newfound ability to sing on “808s And Heartbreak,” while leaving in its distorting effects, the app cemented its permanent place in popular music. Digitally changing vocal tone can be more expressive, even meaningful, than the lyrics sung through it.

Releasing four albums in one week is a major statement. Arca launched her “kick” series last year, but followed it up with the second, third, fourth, and fifth installments in the series during the first week of December. Beyond her solo work, Arca got a major break with her producing and writing for West’s “Yeezus” — she signed to Mute Records the following year — and she has also worked with Bjork, Frank Ocean and FKA Twigs. Last fall, she remixed Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain On Me.”

Arca presented the performance piece “Mutant: Faith,” and her fans refer to themselves as mutants. She also describes “kick iiii” as xenopop. Her videos for the “kick” series expand on her ideas, using CGI to express ideas that would’ve been far too expensive and difficult to imagine with live actors and practical effects. “Prada/Rakbata” riffs on to images from ancient Greece and Rome: Sisyphus and the fall of Pompeii. But in her vision of Pompeii, volcanic lava brings an orgy back to life, shooting directly into a man’s penis. Two men struggle to roll a woman in a burning wheel up a diagonal treadmill, while another version of her lies at its top. The digital avatars take the filter-created sterility of “Instagram face” to new heights, but the video is totally upfront about being a fantasy — its human(ish) characters sport wings and tails.

Each album begins with a brief phrase from Arca: “La doña Arca se rebeza en su cama,” “Oh s**t,” “Time and time again,” “How does one coax?” Constant transformation runs through the “kick” project. More or less, the albums work in different genres, while challenging the barriers between them. “KICK ii” returns to her Latin American roots, experimenting with reggaetón rhythms. “KicK iii” is an exercise in noise. “kiCK iiiii” sings us out on a quieter note. One can pick out politically resonant concepts from these albums’ song titles — “Bruja,” (and its English translation, another song called “Witch”), “Queer,” “Femme,” “Whoresong,” “Estrogen.”

Arca’s choice to sing in Spanish means that many of her listeners won’t understand her lyrics. But her production speeds up and slows down her voice. Many trans and non-binary hyperpop artists have used this technology to express the connections between gender and the voice. But Arca turns herself into many — a deep-voiced rapper, a high-pitched squeal, and everything in between. “Lethargy” goes from a “normal” voice singing “let’s go, papi/let’s go, mami” to a baby-like tone, with her vocals g stretched and buried under glitches later on. “Araña” suggests a slow ride through a post-apocalyptic landscape, where her voice is indistinguishable from metallic percussion, till the song turns almost acapella and ends with a crunch. George Miller should use it in the end credits for his next “Mad Max” film. “Skullqueen” is a nursery rhyme for the “Hellraiser” universe. In comparison, bi pop star Sia’s soaring vocals on “Born Yesterday” are as tame as they are bombastic.

If you can only listen to one album from this series, “KicK iii” is the high point, with Arca rivaling the late SOPHIE in her ability to combine seemingly mismatched tones and rhythms and make them cohere in granular detail. It’s a molten Dali watch of an album, but always remaining listenable. Avoiding conventional backbeats and changing time signatures, it still swings. But the whole project is more than the sum of its parts. Arca proves herself capable of creating a private world where the body is infinitely malleable, expressed across many forms.

ARCA | “KICK ii,” “KicK iii,” “kick iiii,” “kiCK iiiii” | XL Recordings