Ever the innovator, Björk’s latest project Biophilia has seen her take up a short residency at Campfield Market Hall as part of the Manchester International Festival to play a set of live shows which will be accompanied by educational workshops, documentaries, unprecedented internet presence, newly invented musical instruments and an album release which will feature the world’s first app-album. Biophilia is an attempt to explore the relationship between music, nature and new technology on a grand scale, necessitating something more than just a 10-track cd, and hence requiring a truly unique, genre-confounding revelatory experience.
When I saw Take That a couple of weeks ago, I remarked to my friend as we watched a group of women collapse in rapture as they started to play Pray that gigs are so much better when you have that personal connection to the music. I didn’t have that with Take That despite being lucky enough to be given a ticket, but I do have that with Björk, one of the artists who has truly soundtracked my life, and sure enough I had my moment of rapture as she launched into ‘Hyperballad’ at the end – I may even have shed a joyous tear or two.
I remember clearly my cousin Sarah lending me her cd of Debut and from that moment I was hooked: from iconic magazine covers for Q Magazine and The Face, to television performances that blew me away, whether rocking the Brit Awards with a growling PJ Harvey or shaking up Top of the Pops with a Skunk Anansie remix, and to the music – albums like nothing I had heard before. And Post in particular hit me at a time when I was finally beginning to realise that it was ok to like music that no-one else I knew liked, the Post tour marked the first time I ever went to a gig on my own and discovered there was a world of like-minded individuals outwith my little village and that being so different was absolutely fine. It may sound a bit daft but in a pre-widespread internet age, my first Björk gig really was a complete eye-opener, a landmark in my personal development, in my ability to assert myself as an individual. As such, my love for her has rarely wavered, I’ve been to every tour she has done since then, even trekking to Paris to see her and sticking by her even when the music has tested the patience a little (yes, I mean Medúlla!)
But back to Biophilia: her vision here, three years in the making, is simply spectacular. Specially commissioned instruments which tap into primal forces like gravity, air and electricity to create their music are scattered at the four corners of the stage: the pendulum harp, 4 harps swinging perfectly in time powered by gravity, both looks and sounds beautiful in the new song Solstice; the giant Tesla coil that sparks stunningly to create its own arpeggios in the opening Thunderbolt is just amazing; the air of the customised pipe organ, the metal of the hybrid gamelan/celeste – gameleste if you will – and something called the hang, used to stunning effect in a stripped-down ‘One Day’. Everything has been so carefully designed to fit perfectly into this project and reinforce its message.
So too with the songwriting. Never one to adhere to pop music convention, she steps further away again adopting scientific and natural inspiration instead: allowing gravity to dictate a bassline here and game controllers to generate prime number sequences to create new beat sequences. Whilst the intention behind it all is undoubtedly admirable, her ambition hasn’t always previously resulted in the easiest of listening experiences, but the wilder excesses have been reined in and this new material is just captivating. It’s something of a reductive comparison to make, but one which has been asked for, and I’d say the overall feel is something close to the swells of sounds in Vespertine mixed with the eclectic vibe and urgency of Post.
Her voice remains the divisive thing of wonder it has always been, swooping high and angry, dipping small and childlike, as we journey through the Biophilia world, accompanied by the intriguing instrumentations. But it is the electronic beats that really deliver, their fascinating rhythm (or lack thereof) pulsating through songs like ‘Thunderbolt’, new single ‘Crystalline’ and a later song (‘Mutual Core’ I think it was) hooking the audience straight in with their combination of originality and accessibility. These new songs were accompanied by a set of projections onto screens above the stage, with delightful narration from David Attenborough, offering tantalising glimpses of the apps that will form part of the new album project: exploring musical form through crystal structures, constant images of the cosmos, a beautifully innovative form of musical notation – seemingly the imagination run wild but with a clear educational focus underpinning the work.
Mixed in with the new material were constant dips into the back catalogue and pleasingly, there was at least one song from each of her proper albums worked into the set. Ever-hardworking, each tour sees her songs completely re-orchestrated to fit the musicians she is working with – so the Voltaïc tour saw arrangements for brass instruments dominating and here, Björk utilises her 24-strong female Icelandic choir in the most delightful of ways: vocal lines coalescing beautifully to lead into ‘Isobel’, singing the gorgeous cascading string riffs of ‘Jòga’, forming the atonal backdrop to a pulsing tribal ‘Where Is The Line’. The support given by the choir throughout was just a joy to watch, they’re clearly having as good as time as us, none more so than in the encore with its ecstatic rendition of ‘Hyperballad’ (probably my favourite moment of the show) and a riotous run through ‘Náttúra’.
Though providing crowd-pleasing moments, these ‘oldies’ also showed that Biophilia really is something of a natural progression for Björk, the intersection between nature and technology is something that she has always explored in her lyrics and later on in her music-making too. Two ladies I chatted to on the train home wished that she had split the show in two, all the new material together and then her set of hits but I think it was wiser to mix it all up, showing this continuity through her recordings. We also discussed the limitations of playing the show in the round with such a large choir onstage, it was a shame that not all the songs were played out to everyone, formations were kept to a little too rigidly – I saw the back of a lot of heads for the entirety of ‘Hidden Place’ (but then ‘Where Is The Line’ was sung practically directly to me!)– and it might have been nice to show video footage of all the new instruments up on the screens as they were played as not everyone could see them. But these are minor gripes in what was a hugely ambitious yet highly successful gig.
This isn’t just music, this is art. And Björk is no mere popstar, she is a genuine pioneer in a world where commercial interests hold far too much sway. This isn’t Björk pushing the boundaries, this is Björk creating a whole new playing field and investigating a brave new world of technological possibility combined with an innate love for nature and for music that hopes for a more sustainable future: a simply epic show.