Practically speaking, Alejandra Ghersi has been working toward the final four chapters of her Kick series for 18 months, since the June 2020 release of KiCk i. But Kick’s culmination feels like it’s been in the works for several years: On kick iiii and kiCK iiiii respectively, guests Shirley Manson and Ryuichi Sakamoto speak of “a mutant faith,” name-checking Ghersi’s September 2019 performance-art residency in New York. Across Mutant:Faith’s four nights, Ghersi—who first turned heads with co-production work for Kanye West and FKA twigs (and later, Björk)—hinted at where she’d next take the music she makes as Arca. Namely, that her clanging, digital arrangements, which tend to spiral over themselves and rattle outward like gears bursting from a steam train, would start to resemble traditional pop melodies and structures.
Then, early last year, she released the hourlong single, “@@@@@,” a preview of how her invertebrate, avant-garde compositions could reform as pop music, while still reckoning with and transcending the limits of the human body, patriarchal notions of identity, and pop itself. Which leads to the new releases: KICK ii, KicK iii, kick iiii, and kiCK iiiii—all released together, all with their own disorienting spelling differences—appear to serve as the destination she’s been aiming for since Mutant:Faith, to say nothing of the liberatory reggaeton-in-a-blender pop of KiCk i. And each album has some deeply appealing moments, especially parts two and three.
The problem is that Ghersi’s simultaneous release of two and a half hours’ worth of music across 47 songs is so overwhelming, it often blurs and dulls the latest far-out sounds and notions from an artist who’s usually miles ahead of the curve. Although this problem might not exist without the four-part structure and presentation, the albums’ simultaneous release implies they’re meant to be heard together.
It’s too bad, because the onslaught of music masks how well KICK ii refines KiCk i’s chaotic, free-flying spirit into something smoother and more muted—and how KicK iii exaggerates these jagged edges. On “Prada” and “Rakata,” two co-released KICK ii singles, Ghersi warbles the reggaeton rhythms of KiCk i into softer, siren-like palettes, and it feels like a potential new frontier for the genre. Her slower-paced vocals on “Prada” make the corporeal and sexual fluidity she sings about readily apparent. “Transformistas boten chispas las bujarras en la cara y más” (“Transformists throw sparks in your face and more”), she gently coos with a slightly modulated drip. This modest pacing provides a contrast to her more forcefully sexual verses (“Duro yo le entro”/ “I enter them hard”), but only reinforces the bravado.
Ghersi advances and nearly perfects the softer, warmer vibe of “Prada” on KICK ii’s “Luna Llena.” The track’s melancholy is immediately palpable: Its blurry, fuzzy synths, compressed reggaeton bump, and Ghersi’s slow-pouring contralto resemble pining distilled into sound, and the titular image of a full moon feels similarly romantic.
KicK iii, however, largely succeeds because it further explores the aggressive moods at which “Prada” only pokes. “Say your ripples make ripples,” Ghersi chirps with chipmunk-like modulation on “Ripples,” and the track’s terrifying yet blissful spirals engender continuously more steel-cut loops—music that sounds exactly like the ripples Ghersi describes. “Señorita” starts as a glitchy skronk of a club track and races toward a breakdown that sounds like a DJ setup imploding, and the iron-laced decomposition sharpens Ghersi’s claims of “I flick my wrist”—a derogatory queer stereotype reclaimed as a gesture of power—with the kind of commanding tone that could only come from the threat of violence.
This fear-based attention dominates the Kick series’ clear peak, KicK iii’s “Incendio.” An abrasive, beatific tale of blood running through streets, the track showcases Ghersi’s sound design at its most inventive. Noises from passing vehicles get as much space as ballistic percussive clamor, and the rampage makes her shapeshifting vocal delivery—breathless quasi-raps, fiery shouts, childlike snickering—consistently hair-raising. When Ghersi shouts the track’s title, Spanish for “fire,” and sends it shooting off the song’s walls with an impossibly rapid cadence, you can almost feel your skin burning in tandem.
But “Incendio” was released as a single, making it easy to appreciate how it stands out. The deep cuts arrive en masse, alongside so much else that finding the mental capacity, let alone time, to fully immerse oneself in them is a huge ask. This formidable obstacle puts especially high walls in front of kick iiii and kiCK iiiii, which are Ghersi’s least accessible works to date. In her prior work, unhurried rhythms worked thanks to layers of sugary yet haunting synths, as she did to perfection halfway into “@@@@@” and near-constantly on what is still her career best, 2017’s Arca. Here, though, these tempos mostly pair with chilly synth tones and melodies, and the combination isn’t as compelling.
Examples abound. “Hija,” from kick iiii, slogs through modulated coos and an icy abyss that’s more grating than bracing. And the quivering frost underlying the alien transmissions of “Whoresong” likewise feels more akin to a rough draft of a performance-art piece than a fully rendered idea. It sounds like a misfired tempering of Ghersi’s often overflowing style, which is especially disappointing given how the track’s “bloodlust for beauty” line could well be her thesis. (Her longtime fixation on expanding the limits of the body and world could also be seen as a desire for a transcendent, utopian existence.) If her work has previously resembled a maze of metallic doors and broken mirrors, kick iiii is more akin to the day after a snowstorm: There’s some beauty to it, but the unsightly ice piles curdling near the sidewalks stand out the most.
This issue persists on kiCK iiiii, which is Ghersi’s most minimalistic release. It rarely boasts more than a slow piano line or a near-nonexistent synth bed. These sounds have minor precedents on Arca and the occasional percussion-free sketches of Ghersi’s 2014 debut LP Xen. But Xen’s twists and turns were so unpredictable they demanded following, just as Arca was so lush with ghostly vocal work that it felt viscerally enveloping even when it moved like molasses. Both kick iiii and kiCK iiiii rarely reach such zeniths. So little happens on “Pu,” an early kiCK iiiii track, that it’s tough to pay much attention. Both albums are oddly linear and distant coming from a musician whose irresistibility has long lied in her defiance of norms.
Perhaps these songs would jell more strongly if they belonged to albums released separately, and many months apart, instead of crammed into one unit. “Queer,” from kick iiii, shows the potential of that album’s icy approach. Its glimmering, rumbling synths make the crawling pace feel ascendant, so much so that guest vocalist Planningtorock’s superficial perspective on the simultaneous grief and joy of coming into one’s identity (“I got tears / Like a queer / Queer power”) feels positively enlightening. And penultimate kiCK iiiii track “Fireprayer” centers a rush of arpeggiated synth notes that flutter rapidly, like a harp erupting inside a laptop, and the absence of nearly anything else in the sound design makes the song a riveting bridge back to the earliest Arca albums. But it arrives after 10 mostly uninspiring tracks, an open hand extended too late.
Still, one track later, kiCK iiiii truly shines. On album closer “Crown,” Ghersi transforms a gloomy, oppressively barren stretch of piano into a grumbling, ferocious wave of dissonance and synth gurgling that recalls her best work. “How could it feel / Inside a body / So fatigued / Hips shift,” she sings in a near-whisper, before the music briefly dips out and returns—newly erratic and fearsome—as she nonchalantly sighs, “From side, to side, to side, to side.” Her words evoke both the playful rush of KiCk i and the whole Kick series’ desire to explore what lies beyond the human form; the music could well be her most heartrending version yet of the sounds she first explored more than half a decade ago. In that sense, it’s a fitting end to the Kick series: It expands upon her longtime idiosyncrasies, and could prove a fascinating direction on future projects. If only she consistently sounded so profound.