Barón Libre, Arca
UNO NYC, Venezuela
by Pierre Lestruhaut
Arca, is the 'black canvas' new project of a Venezuelan prodigy. Although not a complicated record to get into, Barón Libre’s immediate references are hard to pin down, and the most difficult thing about it is precisely attempting to categorize it. When I asked the CF staff what they thought of Arca’s debut record and how they’d classify it, CF’s electronic music go-to guy, Andrew Casillas, described it as “kind of like Timbaland meets James Blake but BRASHER, which is exactly what regular people wanted out of James Blake before he revealed his desire to be Joni Mitchell.” The rest of the staff was probably still too busy loving the Talabot record when I asked for their opinion on this.
In describing Arca’s choice of sacrificing pop structures for electronic ones (as opposed to what Blake did), I would have gone for something more like DJ Screw meets Burial, which is actually what you would generally employ to describe (prepare for collective eye-roll) “witch house.” And, more specifically, Salem. The stunning 7-minute closer, “Spira,” uses the chopped and screwed technique to create the same druggy atmosphere of Salem’s “Trapdoor,” while haunted choirs emerge suddenly to spook things up a little just like they do throughout Salem’s King Night. But Arca’s got a lot more versatility than that in his game and, while his sounds and moods are all directly associated to hip-hop, R&B, and many different kinds of electronic music, he still purposefully evades these genres’ traditional structures and operates under a tremendously conceived tension that comes from working between a customary framework and some brash experimentation.
The biggest critical cop-out a writer could ever fall for though, is saying words are not enough to describe the wide spectrum of feelings that a work of art can have in one person. Yet every single attempt of describing Arca as some sort of “X meets Y,” every witch house, Houston rap, dubstep reference I’ve been thinking of ever since starting to listen to Barón Libre feels like a terrible reduction of his work, one that even fails at being a clever display of musical knowledge. As a pop fan, listening to it is an absolutely satisfying experience, but as a music writer trying to dissect why Arca’s approach to electronic music is so appealing, it is something that is absolutely frustrating. There’s a reason why something like Rustie’s maximal approach to electronic music or 0PN’s sample-heavy digital retroism fell short in our end of year list to something like Nicolas Jaar’s highly textured, yet immediately hummable tracks.
After forty spins or so of this 15-minute EP, I think I finally came to find a way to formulate my admiration for it in a personally satisfying way. For some reason I’ve been having these highly hedonistic dreams, which are always about something that has absolutely no apparent reason to be, something like say having KRS-One DJing at your non-existing friend’s house by the beach where you end up making out with your high school crush (to cite the most innocent one of them). But the sheer pleasure of enjoying the moment never leaves any time for questioning the irrationality that lies behind it. That is, until you try to make some sense of it all the next day and end up chuckling about the insanity of the whole thing and how little we can ever really know about what really drives us into dreaming such things.
Arca has succeeded at blending the gap between the pop fan’s illogical hedonistic enjoyment of the record and the music writer’s indulgence in trying to grasp a logical understanding of his enjoyment of it through his own understanding of past and present music. The experience of traveling through Barón Libre’s 15 minutes of slowed down vocals, half-assed sampled raps, haunting choirs, and stabbing synths, leaves the pop kid ecstatic and filled with enjoyment for such a strange sonic feast. But when the music writer starts to make sense of what was really happening there, he begins drawing lines between Arca and other stuff like Burial, DJ Screw, or fucking Salem, thinking of ridiculous reasons for sampling an unimportant DMX track, it’s as difficult as trying to understand the reason that drives you into dreaming whatever it is you dream about. In your dreams you always feel like you absolutely know the characters and the sceneries, you understand the situations. But whatever is configuring those elements in your head, whatever is making you dream of that specifically, that’s something you’ll never be able to seize well, something a whole lot bigger than yourself. And, just like being stuck with Barón Libre on repeat, all you can do is get up the next day and admire just how fucked up the shit really is.