No one really knows exactly how many matadors have been killed in the bullfighting ring. The most-cited figure counts the total over the last 300 years at a relatively scant 52 deaths, though Alexander Fiske-Harrison—the author of one prominent book about the sport—points out that most fatal bullfighting events since 1700 have been exhaustively detailed in a four-volume history called Victims of Bullfighting. Per that book, there have been 533 bullfighters killed in that span at minimum. And that's not counting amateurs gored during unsanctioned events. Each of these deaths is horrific—brutality suffered at the horns or hooves of a near-thousand pound animal. It's hard to even read about, but all these facts ignore another truth: that in traditional bullfighting, even a successful run ends in death for the bull.
The tattered sleeve of a matador's ceremonial jacket is the first thing you see in the video that Arca (born Alejandro Ghersi) released for "Reverie," a recent single from his new self-titled album. It's ripped open, hanging precariously, either from overuse or from a recent scuffle. The clip opens with a close-up on the sleeve as foreboding synth strings twist around wordless vocals; then the camera pans back to reveal Arca himself as the bullfighter (and in relatively ok shape, considering the sartorial damage). But it's not quite that simple. As the song swells to its cacophonous and confusing climax, it becomes clear that he's also affixed to a metallic approximation of a bull's legs, upon which he stiltedly dances, writhes, and reacts with horror as a horn emerges from his pelvis. He smears blood across his body, both sensually and in panic, seemingly struck with the sudden realization that he's both the author and the subject of his pain.
The video is a fitting analogy for most of the music Ghersi's released as Arca. From the pitch-shifted raps and metallic squelches that made up his early Stretch EPs to the bristling beauty of his two full-lengths Xen and Mutant, he's gravitated to sounds that are at turns vicious and wounded. He'll punctuate a gently bowed string swell with a synth that sounds like ball bearings exploding down a crowding stairwell—balancing tenderness and terror in equal measure. But this self-titled effort is a little different—it foregrounds his singing voice and intimate lyrics sung in Spanish on most of the 12 tracks. His voice has appeared—at least in mangled form—on nearly all of his releases, but Arca marks the first time he's put this much of his straightforward singing on a record, an act that he describes in pretty horrific terms. "Here's my voice and all my guts: feel free to judge it," he wrote in a press release. "It's like a bullfight: you're watching emotional violence for pleasure...You want gore? Here's gore."
Fittingly, the record opens with Ghersi pleading for someone to peel off his skin. The line—"Quitame la piel de ayer" which loosely translates to "Take yesterday's skin off of me"—is deliberately ambiguous. It's either a metamorphic new beginning or a horrific end, collapsing the semantic distance between love and violence. It's uneasy and raw—later, he sings of more body horror, offering up his mouth, and laying bare his flesh as strings and synthesizers swell ominously. His is a versatile falsetto that flickers between feeling like intimate address to a lover and a classically trained soprano under a spotlight. It only gets more brutal from there.
The album's most moving passage opens with one of the album's ferociously named instrumentals, a collage of whooshes and cracks called "Whip" (another is titled "Castration"). It's hair-raising on its own, but especially when paired with the air-raid siren that opens the following track, "Desafío." Just when the anxiety-inducing found sounds feel like too much to bear, Ghersi's voice comes in—along with some synth work that feels as mammoth as his production efforts with Björk, FKA twigs, and Kanye West. It's one of the most simply beautiful songs Arca's ever made—the sound of peace emerging from chaos. But just when you think you've escaped, he sings one of the record's most upsetting lines, "Ámame y átame y dególlome/Búscame y penétrame y devórame"—"Love me, bind me and slit my throat/Search for me, penetrate me, and devour me."
Listening to Arca is an uncomfortable experience—Ghersi acknowledges as much in that aforementioned press release. He calls the character he inhabits "almost a mockery of the transaction [between artist and listener, which] goes uncomfortably deep, into self-mutilation." All of his records have have felt like the sonic equivalent watching a bruise spread. But with his voice at the center, Arca puts a human face to the chaos—one that expresses real love, real anger, and real pain, this time with a human form in the frame to bear the brunt of the turmoil. Like a bullfight gone wrong, it's hard to look at—and even harder to look away.