ALBUM REVIEW: Arca, kICK iiiii
Finally, we have come to the end of our KICK journey. After four projects of star-studded deconstructed pop, reggaeton attacks, animalistic rap screeds, and spacey synth warblings, Arca saw it fit to drop a fifth surprise album upon us just as we were digesting the rest. After covering so much ground, I was wondering what else Arca would have left to say. Unexpectedly, it was what she decided not to say on kICK iiiii that makes it such a Standout Album. When interviewed about this new album cycle of hers, she had mentioned that one of the albums would be all pianos, and no vocals. She added later in that same discussion that nothing was finalized until she mastered it, and sent it off to be posted, essentially. Like her former boss Kanye West, she saw fit to make last minute additions to the majority of the projects. So while iiiii is partially the all piano record that was promised, she decided to reduce some of the risk by adding vocals to about half of the songs. In my opinion, this was a really smart decision because without at least some vocals, this thing would play like the Minecraft score by C418. However, with a mix between solely instrumental and more melodic tracks, we get a unique record that is bested only by KicK iii as the best of the series.
I also wanted to get it out of the way that I absolutely love the Minecraft soundtrack. The simplicity of it gave a real sense of depth and atmosphere to the game, and that Arca does the same on this record. By the looks of the cover, the world she is trying to explore feels like something of a bonus level, a Hellish place that can only be found through breaking the source code. As such, the piano tones presented are very empty and neutral in a way that oddly works. “Pu” may be the most minimalistic track Arca has ever created, with very light choral synth pads droning in the background and single notes of keyboard being plucked one by one. In the same family of sound lie “Estrogen” and “Ether”, which seem to explore different rooms of this concrete underground fortress that the fifth Arca inhabits. When Arca had released @@@@@ last year, she mentioned in a press release that it was meant to simulate an FM transmission in a dystopian world, with a fictional character called “Diva Experimental” being the host. In order to defeat this villain, one had to destroy the five bodies that they took over, which in my theory would be the Arca clones on each of the KICK covers.
Considering that this is the hidden boss of the series, that comes with a massive switch of sound. On “Sanctuary”, ambient music legend Ryuichi Sakamoto actually references “Diva Experimental” and a “mutant faith” over some very sinister, Dark Souls-like bass scoring coupled with warped Arca vocalizations. Towards the end, everything begins to deconstruct and it begins to remind me of a chopped and screwed version of her classic single “Xen”, very chunky yet ethereal. Other instrumental/”Arcaless” highlights for me include the busy “Amrep” which sounds a little more like danger is ahead in a video game level, whereas the cursed chimes of “Fireprayer” feel more like an intermittent fight before the big boss in Nioh. According to Wikipedia, this one was also co-written with Sia, which neutralizes their other bad collaboration, in my opinion. By the end, digital strings and piano chords begin to create a crescendo that overtakes all the noise, it’s honestly breathtaking to listen to.
When Arca does give herself that chance to speak, she never comes up with a bad idea, in my opinion. The back-to-back of “Tierno” and “Musculos” following “Sanctuary” is one of my favorite sections on the record, with the former calling back to the inferior “No Queda Nada”. In just a year’s time, she has greatly improved her singing voice to a point where it legitimately sounds expressive and rich. She likes to go straightforward and romantic at times, calling back to Spanish language music that likely impacted her childhood like “Amor Prohibido” by Selena. The words she says are extremely straightforward and sweet, “I didn't have time to prepare/For so much tenderness”. In some ways, moments like this feel like scene in Scary Movie 3 where the girl from The Ring turns back into a pure soul for a moment, only to go “Nah, I’m just screwin’ with ya!”, turning back into the monster. “Crown” definitely embodies that monstrous persona, with more sexual explicit lyrics being spoken unemotionally between the sounds of knives slitting necks. It’s almost like a hypnotizing siren song of sorts, or if we’re going by video game logic, this is an ending scene from Gears of War game where the giant boss begins to fall apart and the Hellscape collapses in on itself. As the song progresses, you can almost hear the world falling apart around them, a very satisfying and tense finale indeed.
If this record runs a little slow, or too atmospheric for your tastes, give it a few more rounds straight through. It gets more rewarding with each listen, because it literally feels like a new album being built layer-by-layer. While “In The Face” is just ASMR vocals over emptiness, tracks like “Pu” begin to paint the environment a little bit. From there, we get tracks like “Musculos”, which start to sneak vocals in more. By “Crown”, we get a fully realized vision, and uncoincidentally, it sounds like a classic Arca track. It’s almost like a demo recording session where Arca is listening to influences and fucking around with the pianos before putting it all into one Hellish package. While I probably could’ve used one or two more vocal tracks, I am heavily enjoying what Arca offers here. It is a nice, hard left turn into a brand new space that works out well for her.