Arca's Alejandra Ghersi remained as prolific as she was before projects like her highly acclaimed debut album Xen and her production work on Björk's Vulnicura raised her profile. Just a few months after Xen's release, Ghersi issued Sheep, a mixtape of music she composed for a Hood by Air fashion show. As an artist with a distinctive look and sound, Arca's connection to the fashion world made sense, but Sheep wasn't standard runway fare: with tracks that sampled the bleating of sheep and choral music (as well as the work of Björk, Robert Wyatt, and Lana Del Ray), it teetered between stylish and subversive, disturbing and poignant. Ghersi expands on this complicated headspace on Mutant, a set of tracks that feels like a hard-won celebration of individuality. A few of Sheep's pivotal moments reappear here, providing some of the album's touchstones. "Else" manages to be both delicate and heavy, while "Hymn"'s intensity reaches fittingly awe-inspiring levels. Ghersi uses chanted vocals to humanize the mechanical chaos of "Umbilical," and renders them unearthly on the eerie, frantic "En." Of course, Mutant is much more than a rehash of Sheep. Ghersi also goes deeper into Xen's elastic yet abrasive sound world, heightening and fragmenting it into extremes: stripped down to little more than echoing chords, "Gratitude" initially plays like a respite from the album's density, but there's as much tension in its spaces as there is on busier tracks like "Enveloped," a melee of ping-ponging beats and lush tones that is one of the few nods to the more structured approach of Ghersi's debut. Instead, Mutant emphasizes the physicality of Arca's music. It often feels like she is applying extreme pressure to these songs and suddenly releasing it, letting the gut-punching percussion and brittle synth tones bend and break at will. The results are frequently stunning, as on the strafing, sparkling opener "Alive" or the lengthy title track, which is built on a shuddering beat that sounds like it was recorded on fault lines. Mutant's fragmentation suggests the breaking of emotional boundaries as well as musical ones. From the kinetic melancholy of "Snakes" to the more personal territory of "Soichiro" (which uses the middle name of longtime collaborator Jesse Kanda as its title) and "Faggot," which unites the album's hardness and softness in a bold reclamation of that slur, this is some of Ghersi's most charged-sounding music. Mutant may be some of her most challenging work yet, but as Arca's music becomes more abstract, the viewpoint behind it comes into focus in ways that embrace strangeness, ugliness, and beauty equally.
by Heather Phares