Just a half hour into Arca’s set at Hollywood Forever’s Masonic Lodge on Wednesday, a young woman in the crowd started looking ill. As the Venezuela-born, London-based producer’s seismic sub-bass and shrieks of noise shook the upstairs rafters, she put a denim jacket over her head and grabbed her boyfriend’s hand.
As the visual artist Jesse Kanda manipulated images of distended human-ish forms in the throes of a dancefloor orgy, the woman groaned “I think I’m going to throw up,” and left the room for the rest of the show.
Maybe she was really hung over, or perhaps it was the onset of food poisoning. But maybe Arca just did his job.
Alejandro Ghersi’s electronic music is designed to unsettle, to walk a line between synthetic, alien beauty and the grime of the human body. To call it “club music” would imply a structure Arca's sound just doesn’t have, but to call it “noise music” would ignore the sex and sweat at the heart of it.
On Wednesday night, Arca and Kanda’s collaborative set was physically difficult to listen to and sometimes a bit formless. It was also one of the most transgressive and imaginative live electronic performances in years.
So far, Arca is best known for his collaborative work, lending sad and jittery backdrops to artists like Kanye West, Bjork, FKA Twigs and Kelela. He’s at his best with charismatic vocalists like those to keep his songs tight -- his 2014 LP “Xen” was virtuosic but tended to wander.
Onstage, however, Ghersi was the centerpiece his songs needed. When he took the stage in the Masonic Lodge, Ghersi wore a scooped black dress that he frequently let dangle off his bare chest as he prowled the small lofted corner of the Lodge. When he sang, he used a provoking falsetto that was half-taunt, half enticement. When he rapped, his delivery had the torrential urgency of an SOS call.
Whether he was punching at his sampler or grasping at his own torso in an erotic reverie, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Kanda’s projections of gender-tweaked dancers evoked a digital-art Hieronymus Bosch with its mix of sexy and grotesque, but Ghersi’s own stage presence was the real embodiment of his songs’ beguiling violence.
Tracks like “Thievery” and “Sad Bitch” swung with cumbia’s syncopation or mulled on Erik Satie’s piano melodies, but with all the instruments ripped out and replaced with the sounds of twisted metal and the reverb of empty tunnels.
Noise and club music has always attracted people in search of something new -- an escape from day-job tedium or social ostracization or just the limits of your own mind and body. Sexual identity isn’t so overt on Ghersi’s records, though he’s been outspoken in the press about being gay. But when he performs live, Ghersi makes it clear that his tracks are about re-making the world as you want it and need it.
It’s easy to imagine how a young gay man growing up in Venezuela’s sometimes hostile political climate might need to do that. And after the unexpected death last week of the 27-year-old Hippos in Tanks label founder Barron Machat, who released some of Arca's first material, there's a deep streak of sadness in experimental music circles right now.
But to watch Ghersi onstage is to see him try to escape all of that in real time, with every desperate fever dream on full, brave display. Even if he was hard to listen to, and even if his songs sometimes needed pruning, on Wednesday Arca worked to push the boundaries of what art and life can feel like. When he climbed offstage and half-rapped, half-shouted over a bone-snapping kick drum, the crowd took him in as one of their own.
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