You would be forgiven if, listening numerically through the newest installments of Arca‘s on-going Kick series, it felt like these were becoming mere exercises in range and influence. It should be no shock to us from the vantage point of 2021 and 2022 that Arca has quite a range to her work, can spin universes out of fragments of seemingly contradictory sound palettes. After all, the number of genius artists she can call her peers is dwindling, be it the disappointing paths of figures like M.I.A., where she revealed an uglier side to her person that’s become increasingly frustrating to witness, Kanye West, who became more toxic and difficult to tolerate even while his music efforts remained sharp, or the tragic death of SOPHIE. It feels more and more that Arca is becoming peerless. This peerlessness can be counter to proper artistic growth, however, be it inward in creation or outward in witnessing. Truthfully, perusing these four new additions in order, one would not doubt for a second that her senses are still sharp for composition, mixing and arrangement. But we begin, unfortunately, to expect our minds to be blown by every record the way they were by her self-titled album, by @@@@@, by KiCk i, and so when we hear merely superb and thoughtful work, it is easy to accept that perhaps we will be let down, despite its quality.
That is, at least, until kiCK iiiii starts.
KICK ii explores reggaeton and other contemporary Latin electronic and dance musics through the lens of Arca’s post-human mind. There are fragments of the key rhythms you’d expect from those genres, echoes of their forms and functions, but this is as far from reggaeton proper as dub eventually became by the late 1970s from its roots in reggae and ska, albeit here going through a post-genre avant-garde forced evolution. The experience is interesting from an academic perspective but not necessarily immediately catching; it is nice to see Arca play homage to the music of her youth in explicit terms, but it can feel at times like they are merely remixing existing unheard tracks rather than breaking new ground.
KicK iii is its exploration of club music, especially the heavier and more pressing variety. These spaces definitely fit Arca’s evolutionary approach a bit more discretely and concretely. This point actually almost becomes a negative; while each of the other installments offer a great deal in the way of individuating features, heavy club music is already so generally present across Arca’s works as she’s presented them over the years that at first iii feels as though it lacks a central organizational thesis. Granted, its position as the current center of the series would excuse that, rendering it the heart from which other works extended, but the revelation in retrospect makes the lack of a strong individuating burst feel like somewhat of a missed opportunity.
kick iiii is where the series starts to heat up again. The conceptual thread here is part sonic and part emotional, where the musical end explores the kind of post-Björk mixture of prog, experimental music, the avant-garde and the tenderheartedness of pop while the emotional charts Arca grappling with the contradictions present in her experience as both a trans woman and someone who is nonbinary. This latter point offers great fruit for emotionally salient work; the tendernesses and desires, sublimated and embodied in the flesh, of paradigms of self that current social definitions of gender and the body don’t allow is one we are all becoming more and more familiar with, as much in ourselves as in the people around us. This concept, of course, is a strong thread underpinning the entire Kick series, made explicitly manifest through associated art, but it is compelling to finally have direct expressive words set to these feelings, making transparent and communicative a set of questions and experiences that otherwise lays behind a veil of avant-garde auditory associative movements. Transness, it should be reminded, isn’t made beautiful by its suffering but by its joys and lay experiential humanity as well. But so too do we find often the heart is bonded most securely when we recognize a shared pain and yearning exposed in vulnerability, something Arca is a master of communicating.
On entering kiCK iiiii, it feels as though the extensions have broadly been an upward arc. This is excusable in retrospect; a total of two and a half hours of new music is a lot from any artist and expecting all of it to blow us away entirely misses the point of these larger-scale projects, of which we here at Treble have covered several including in recent history. The point of these kinds of projects often is in how a total loosely-organized brain dump can reveal certain micro-structures an artist may not have anticipated or known would emerge in their own work, micro-structures which may or may not assembled into different kinds of organizational frameworks at play. These kinds of multi-hour multi-part works require more patience and more active listening on the part of the audience (and critic) but are the equivalent of opening up a hood and watching an engine at work, dismantling and cataloging its parts, seeing how each piece connects and relates to another. That each installment may not be as sharply a standalone masterwork as Arca’s self-titled record, still perhaps her greatest single album, is totally fine; we are learning her psyche, together with her, and this process itself is beautiful in a way a single record can’t be.
So then to press play on kiCK iiiii and discover her approach to ambient, experimental and contemporary classical work certainly was a pleasant shock. (It may be apparent to some of you that this is a quite dear mode of electronic work for us here at Treble.) iiiii certainly feels like a “lessons learned” record, one that takes the more classical approach to development and arrangement even of electronic textures and presses upon it notions and insights both musical and emotional from the previous four installments. I found myself choking up part way through despite the wordlessness, a gentle ruminative ache forming in my belly. By the midpoint, I had opened an old short story of mine left half finished for half a decade from the years I believed, whether rightly or wrongly, that some day I could be a writer. By the end, I was crying quietly at my desk. It wasn’t a cry of pain precisely; it was a pure cry, the physical sensation, some unnameable force welling up within me and passing through me by the juddering of my body under tears. That Ryuichi Sakamoto is present on this installment makes perfect sense. This is not just her gesture to those places, but her ascension to them, at long last, arriving as a clear peer to the great geniuses of this form.
But the beauty of kiCK iiiii is not just in its fruits in isolation. This sudden eruptive wave of tears in me, a river of healing, caused me on reflection to go back, first to iiii, then iii, then iii. Each time I was greeted again by this buried sense of longing and desire, sometimes contoured with pain, other times with lust, and almost all with a sense of muddled confusion and confidence of the body. Suddenly, in the wake of the revelatory experience of the conclusion of the thus-far final record of the series, the insights and emotional space of the previous installments clicked into place. The subtle majesty exposed itself in gentle revelation; Kick is a kind of initiation, taking us through the mysteries, allowing us to be bewildered and unmoved until, arriving closer and closer to the heart, our spirits vibrating more and more in closer sync with Arca’s own, we are met at the empyrean center of her sonic world with a rush of beauty that reveals at last the shape of her world. It reads suddenly like a kind of novel, where i is Arca in the present of her work with Björk and lost compatriot SOPHIE (may she rest in peace), ii is her journey back to her home as a child, iii is her time in the clubs as a youth, iiii is her coming out and investigating her self qua itself and iiiii as the serene moment of love/acceptance, powerful enough to wash backward and make us learn to adore and find wonder in those previous searching moments in the desert of self.
Through all of this, Arca produces music that is beyond categorization. Her music is in dialogue with vaporwave, with hyperpop, with IDM and reggaeton and contemporary classical music and minimalism and industrial and noise, but it is not any of these things. Like SOPHIE in the creation of PC music, a genre that increasing seems fit only as a way of describing how beyond the world SOPHIE herself seemed to be, Arca makes music that is, like all of the greats of this form, too fully herself to make pure sense inside other bounds. All of it sounds different to itself; all of it sounds like Arca. We are blessed that she is continuing to make music of this caliber. She offers us visions of better futures, ones we sadly may never live ourselves. This music is special.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.