Mutant eschews rhythm in favor of abstract noise.
Over two full-lengths and a smattering of EPs and mixtapes, Venezuela’s Arca has used machines to explore his own humanity. On last year’s debut, Xen, he profiled his gender-fluid alter-ego of the same name through electronic music that sounded fleshy and tactile in spite of its obvious mechanical origins. His intent on second album, Mutant, is less clear, but the song titles (“Umbilical,” “Alive,” “Mutant”) and the distinctly organic vibe of the music make it obvious that his focus is still on the body and its functions, both vital and carnal.
Many of the tracks on Xen could viably be called “beats.” Except on a few tracks buried in its second half, Mutant eschews rhythm in favor of abstract noise. The sounds here are unusually soft for an album this abrasive; even the most intense drum patterns, like that on opener “Alive,” feel as if they’re “played” with brushes. The synth melodies, often pitch-bent and amorphous, feel like cytoplasm in which the more solid and tangible components of his music can swim freely. Mutant‘s closest sonic cousin is Matmos’s A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, which used samples from surgical procedures; you won’t hear the squish of liposuction here, but Arca achieves the same effect with his synths.
Mutant‘s 20 tracks flow into each other more or less seamlessly, so individual sounds stick out more than individual songs. Sirens appear twice. Human voices are scarce, so they’re jarring when they appear, particularly when a spoken sample of an unidentifiable language pops its head up on “Umbilical.” Arca can also evoke profound beauty when he wants. Much of the album’s second half is devoted to classically-indebted sketches whose gorgeous chord voicings and changes reveal his years of piano lessons.
Though the quieter second half comes as a relief after the first half’s sonic barrage, an hour of this stuff is still hard to take. There are few moments where you can just sit back and forget what’s playing; Mutant perpetually keeps the listener on their toes. As with Xen, which often felt like a collection of sketches, there’s a sense here that Arca is making this music mostly for himself. This is forgivable given his day job as a producer for art-pop luminaries like Kanye and FKA twigs. His solo work ostensibly provides an outlet for the wilder ideas working with other artists forces him to dial back. But it doesn’t necessarily make for music you’d want to throw on every day for your morning commute.
Still, if you’re in the mood to be challenged, Mutant can be an engaging, even fun listen. Arca’s skill at sound design is obvious, and it’s a feat to make an album this sprawling consistently interesting. Despite its length and ambition, this may not be Arca’s definitive statement. He’s young and prolific, and both Mutant and Xen‘s flaws suggest he may still be figuring his way around the album format. But for now, it’s the best representation yet of his confounding and fascinating approach to electronic music.