Electronic music has always had an ambivalent relationship with the human body. On the one hand, it’s a genre that’s intensely focused on bodily experience—there’s the orgiastic rituals on the rave floor, the intense sensory overload of industrial and IDM, the digital sensuality of house music. And yet, the body remains a source of anxiety. With its awkward and messy assemblage of limbs, joints, muscle, skin and blood, it is the anachronistic antithesis of electronica’s space-age metal-and-latex aesthetic. Worst of all is the prevailing notion that things like sexuality, gender and “the human condition” are invariable properties, determined by the fixed reality of our biological form.
This conflict between the body’s physical limitations and technologically imagined possibilities has informed electronic music since its very inception: One of the first commercially successful synthesizer albums was 1968’s Switched-On Bach by Robert Moog collaborator Wendy Carlos, a trans woman who used its profits to fund her gender affirmation surgery. Electronic music has tried to reconfigure the human body and experience ever since.
You can see it in the queer-affirmative eroticism of synth-pop and early house, rave’s PLUR (“peace, love, unity and respect”) radicalism, and the cyborg transhumanism of IDM and glitch. And you can hear all these different strains of sonic progressivism—and others—come together in Arca’s epic five-album Kick cycle, the last four parts of which dropped last week. Over 59 tracks and three hours of shape-shifting, idiosyncratic, provocative sound, Arca wields corrosive reggaeton, mind-rattling noise, subaquatic synths and androgynous diva-pop as weapons in an ecstatic assault on all sorts of binaries and immutable “self-states”.
The project’s first instalment, KiCk i—released in June 2020 amidst the first wave of panicked covid-19 lockdowns—hinted that the Caracas, Venezuela-born, Barcelona-based artist was moving from the abrasive, terrifying soundscapes of her early work towards more pop-leaning experimentation. Arca already had a certain pop pedigree—she had produced for Kanye West, FKA Twigs and Björk, and even had a brief career as a teen pop star in Venezuela—and now she was letting those sensibilities leak into her solo work. Her voice, often manipulated beyond recognition on early releases, took centre stage. The production was more polished, the rhythms more dance-floor friendly. Tracks like the coming out anthem Nonbinary and electro-pop ballad Time deconstructed and reassembled the pop-diva archetype in her image, following the trail blazed by (late) fellow trans producer-turned-pop star SOPHIE.
The new quartet of albums complicates that linear narrative, each release exploring a different aspect of Arca’s complex, fragmented, contradictory inner world. Indeed, she speaks of the albums not as sequels but as “fractal-like expansions”, each pulling at a different thread of sonic possibility without foreclosing on the others. This commitment to a multiplicity of mutations is also evident in the project’s visual aesthetic: a 3D universe conceived in collaboration with multimedia artist Frederik Heyman, dominated by various cyborg iterations of Arca’s body.
KICK ii leans further into pop territory and the artist’s Latin American roots, with lyrics entirely in Spanish. Reggaeton, Brazilian funk and Venezuelan folk are warped and reconfigured into the underwater pop of Prada and the raunchy club anthem Rakata. As familiar as these sounds are, they are still shot through with Arca’s penchant for subversion: Sunny melodies transform into pitch-shifted aural corruption, beats shuffle into arrhythmic arrest, atonal synth-lines lurk in dimly-lit side alleys.
This undercurrent of tension and menace explodes into full view on KicK iii. Opener Bruja bristles with jagged-edge synths and ratatat percussion like a synchronised slow-motion street battle. “Hush it while I lick my bloody claws,” Arca snarls. “Cuddly fur, sharpened paws/ Did I stutter? Hear me roar.”
The helium-balloon vocals and glitched out IDM beats of Skullqueen nod at some of Aphex Twin’s most maximalist compositions, while Senorita is a dystopian cyberpunk re-imagining of 1990s vogue-house. The best release on the set, KicK iii brushes past the boundaries of experimental dance music with swagger, a DJ live-sampling the sounds of an ongoing apocalypse.
The project takes an ambient turn on kick iiii, Arca drenching the record with neon-hued synths and washed-out textures. Particular highlights include the gothic club anthem Queer (featuring Planningtorock’s emotive pitch-shifted mantra “I got tears, but tears of fire”) and the post-rock sprawl of Xenomorphgirl. Garbage’s Shirley Manson encapsulates the entire album cycle’s manifesto on the shoegaze-y Alien Inside. “Remember the post-human celestial sparkle,” she drones. “a mutant faith, an identity faith, or perhaps nothing but an abstract construct”.
In comparison to the maximalist excess of the earlier records, the tender minimalism of kiCK iiiii feels a bit like an afterthought, especially since the album cycle originally planned for only four releases. But it has its gems too—the uncanny-valley keys and Beat-poet spoken word of Ryuichi Sakamoto collaboration Sanctuary, the atmospheric harpsichord stylings of Estrogen, the fair-ground lullaby of Pu. It may lack the magnetic attraction of its predecessors but its intimacy underlines the new-found confidence and self-love that has followed Arca’s own recent gender transition.
Taken together, these five records form an immense, occasionally overwhelming, occasionally incoherent, but incredibly rewarding magnus opus dedicated to Arca’s faith in radical, ongoing transformation of all kinds. Looking beyond the already-crumbling binary of gender, Kick goes even further. What sort of gender-fluid, mix-and-match possibilities can we dream of when we free the body’s trap? How does sexuality respond to a future of body modification and transhumanism? Kick offers five compelling, provocative and wonderfully alien visions of that future.
Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.