BJÖRK Homogenic (One Little Indian)Björks third solo album (or seventh, if you want to include two remix albums, an Icelandic jazz set recorded whilst she was in The Sugarcubes and her proper debut made when she was ten...but, on reflection, you probably dont) presents as distant and exotic face to the world as the Björk-in-geisha-garb cover photo. Having ditched long-term collaborator Nellee Hooper on the grounds that his approach was producing records that were too generically Björk-like (i.e. those easy-to-pigeonhole production-line commercialised works "Debut" and "Post"....still, you get the point), "Homogenic" was helmed by Mark Bell of LFO, and, if you believe the rumours, born of Ms Gudmundsdottirs breakup with the popular junglist and dental jewellery exponent Goldie.
Whatever, "Homogenic" is definitely the strangest and most personal of Björks legitimate solo works to date. The music is the sort of austere techno and drum n bass that those signed to the Sheffield-based Warp imprint (such as LFO themselves, and the Black Dog/Plaid axis) specialise in, a bit like listening to Portishead at the wrong speed (and the intro to "Immature" is a dead ringer for that of The Blue Niles "A Walk Across The Rooftops" - bliss!). The lyrics veer erratically from bittersweet to bitter, with the occasional twist of Icelandic humour, for example "I thought I could organise freedom/How Scandinavian of me", "After five years/If you live that long/Youll wake up/All love-less" and "How could I be so immature/To think he would replace/All the missing elements in me?/How extremely lazy of me!".
But is it any good? Id venture a tentative yes. "Homogenic" was released with relatively little hype - without even a single preceding it - and, need you ask, theres no "Its Oh So Quiet" radio-friendly big balladry on it to bump up the Christmas sales, or anything as purely wonderful as "Hyperballad". But this sort of fanbase-scything awkwardness is, ironically, I know, becoming increasingly popular these days - take Blurs last album, for example - and given time "Homogenic" may well reveal the bruised and broken heart beneath its sleek silver exterior. But for the moment, expect to appreciate it, if not exactly love it.
BJÖRK SelmaSongs (One Little Indian)
Kev beat me to this in the last issue, as I was sitting around waiting for the delayed release of the vinyl version (time well spent, in fact, as it arrived as a limited edition 180g pressing) and for the film that "SelmaSongs" soundtracks, Lars Von Trier's "Dancer In The Dark", to wend its way into a Dorset fleapit. And without wishing to come over too Barry Norman for a rock fanzine, "Dancer In The Dark", due both to Lars Von Trier's unflinching, unbearably humane direction and Björk's heartbreaking, guileless central role in it (a performance so intense that during the period of filming she was apparently reduced to eating paper), is a monumental cinematic achievement, delivering the kind of jaw-slackening emotional torment I've only previously experienced in a cinema at the mercy of another Von Trier film, "Breaking The Waves". The reactions of my companions ranged from "The most depressing film I've ever seen" to "Why don't they hurry up and hang her so we can go home?", so "Dancer In The Dark" doesn't appear to be fun for the whole family, but if you think escapism is for lightweights and a film incomplete without at least one senseless, tragic death it might well be your bag.
Which brings me to the soundtrack which, although brief, clocking in at around 33 minutes, is crammed with wonderful music. Being a musical, "Overture", the orchestral opener, logically plays to a blank screen in the film, and introduces the soundtrack's main themes whilst still sounding like a coherently scored piece. "Cvalda" ricochets to the machine music of the factory in which Björk and Catherine Denueve's characters work. The single, "I've Seen It All", here with actor Peter Stormare's vocals replaced by those of the rather more marketable Thom Yorke (who must've had a lot of spare time on his hands, what with not having much to do on the new Radiohead album), is one of the best things Björk has yet recorded, up there with the skyscraping highs of "Anchor Song" and "Hyperballad": played against the rattling melody of a passing locomotive a la Godspeed You Black Emperor!, it's an unsettling hymn to Björk's character's impending blindness. "Scatterheart" is compiled and cosmeticised from a few fragments of song that appear following one of the film's most crucial scenes, and arguably stronger for the meddling. "In The Musicals" records Björk's character's pivotal fascination with Hollywood musicals, whilst "107 Steps" is the films own "March To The Scaffold". And then there's "New World", which closes the film on the ambiguous refrain "If living is seeing I'm holding my breath ".
So. Wonderful film, one of the most powerful I've ever seen, and a brilliant soundtrack, even though purists might grumble at the manner in which the songs have been massaged into a more commercial form from screen to shop. Perhaps, in view of the meagre running time, it wouldnt have been too much to ask to have the film versions included as well. Nevertheless, as a musical experience "SelmaSongs" is as fabulously off-kilter as anything else Björk has yet recorded.
BJÖRK Vespertine (One Little Indian)
Last year's "SelmaSongs" was, to my way of thinking, Björk's finest musical moment so far, an opinion that had something to do with her guileless, script-eating, anti-acting performance in Lars Von Trier's predictably startling "Dancer In The Dark", the film that it soundtracked. But, for all the thoroughgoing excellence of that album, it was a product of a Björk playing an uncharacteristic puppet role, subservient to the demands of narrative and other alien artistic considerations. "Vespertine" could be seen as her revenge, or release: having seen her quirky music merrily absorbed into the mainstream by virtue of its sheer gushing beauty, here Björk goes several steps beyond, creating an album even more challenging and difficult than the hook-free mathematical pulsings of "Homogenic".
There's a whirling randomness about this album that sounds like nothing else I can name. Björk's music has become diffuse, the melodies coalescing from tinkles and loops scattered across the soundstage. You have to make some effort to assemble the components into tunes, but tunes they most unmistakably are; it's just the manner of presentation that has changed. Musical boxes are a recurring theme on "Vespertine", appropriately, because they illustrate the delicacy of this year's model, but also the meticulous clockwork care with which these songs have been drawn together, from elements as diverse as E.E. Cummings poetry and samples from Oval. And the choirs, oh the choirs: I haven't heard massed voices recorded like this outside of Van Morrison's "Snow In San Anselmo", rippling with texture.
"Vespertine" is an album that deserves and demands repeated plays to unlock its secrets: I wouldn't dare to pretend that I've got it sussed after a mere half-dozen spins. But if you get the opportunity - the single, "Hidden Place", is a fine thing, but perhaps of necessity, doesn't completely catalogue the maverick mother of invention to be found here - skip to "Pagan Poetry" (notable for the chilling, repeated acapella declaration "I love him, I love him", a real "Sara" moment if ever there was one), "Heirloom" (gorgeous minutiae lyrics about family bonding, like most of the album far too intelligent to be a single but we can hope) or "Unison" (awwww, beautiful, just exquisite, in the running for her finest contribution to popular music thus far). But for at least most of the 55 minutes it will take out of your life, "Vespertine" is an adorable think-piece of an album, constructed house of cards-style from shivers of ice and flagons of fire, and one of the most audacious and astonishing records of this staid old year.
BJÖRK Pagan Poetry (One Little Indian)
Being one of about a dozen highlights of Björk's fascinating spiderweb of a new album "Vespertine", "Pagan Poetry" appears to have sunk like a stone when released as a single. Inevitable, really, because as arguably her most challenging chart contender yet it's far too subtle and inventive for the formulaic wallpaper of daytime radio, and anybody fortunate enough to meet the song in any other context is highly likely to steer themselves directly towards its parent album, if they haven't already done so. This single contains two mixes of the title feature - a concise Video Edit and an even more impishly mischievous version remade by Matthew Herbert - and an Opiate version of fellow album marvel "Aurora". It's all fabulous: the choirs, the music boxes, the harps, the "I love him, I love him" mantra, but it's also all on "Vespertine", which remains one of the most breathtaking albums of a rather dour and workmanlike year.
BJÖRK Medulla (One Little Indian)Björks first studio album in three years takes the stripped-down concept to previously uncharted extremes. Medulla is built predominately around the sound of the artists voice, Bobby McFerrin-style, albeit programmed, processed, sampled and stretched beyond easy recognition. The result is a collection of songs that sound hollowed-out, like blueprints or x-rays, whilst at the same time displaying a dazzling structural complexity. Despite the apparently minimalist conceit, shes assisted by a cast of many that includes long-time collaborators Mark Bell (LFO) and Matmos, Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr Bungle), Rahzel (The Roots), Robert Wyatt (with whom she intertwines seamlessly on Submarine), Peter Van Hooke (Mike + The Mechanics) and Icelandic and British choirs. Nevertheless, the album struggles to avoid a certain monochrome frostiness thats absent from much of the rest of her catalogue.
Medulla is perhaps at its best during the more upbeat moments. The gently combative Where Is The Line plays a hyperactive, burping rhythm against angelic peals and whistling. Who Is It (Carry My Joy On The Left Carry My Pain On The Right) is even finer, a gloriously elastic, kinetic zinging thing. The fragile Ancestors seems almost as if it was woven by nature, a collage of sighs, gasps and moans held together by hesitant piano notes. The whole experience peaks with the closing Triumph Of A Heart, a paws-in-the-air house anthem for a dancefloor patronised by the kind of forest- and cave-dwelling furry creatures that occasionally appeared in the grooves of early Pink Floyd and Tyrannosaurus Rex albums.
The limited edition British vinyl issue of Medulla has been lavishly packaged and pressed despite clocking in at under 45 minutes One Little Indian have seen fit to present it on two heavyweight 45 rpm discs for maximum sonic potential. And, for all the obstacles it might throw in the path of the less committed listeners journey to enjoyment, it must surely contain at least some of the most unusual, experimental and compelling sounds to be released by a major artist during 2004.
BJÖRK / LEILA Empress Ballroom, Blackpool 1 May 2008
You might know Leila Arab from her bedroomtronica (is that a genre? And if not why not?) albums such as Like Weather, but tonight the Iranian performed a DJ set that oscillated wildly between moments of staggering genius and passages of extreme tedium. It put me in mind of an audio equivalent of the kind of video scratching Safi Sniper often prefaces The Falls performances with, except without the attendant rip-your-own-eyes-out levels of annoyance, mashing up such unlikely sources as Paul McKenna (spouting on about better squash playing through hypnosis) and David Bowie (a relatively unmolested reading of Fashion). And it was loud, too once again demonstrating the surprisingly compliant acoustics of this ageing venue if not loud enough to drown out the sounds of complaint around me from the philistine element of the audience, objecting at having to stand around listening to this for another 40 minutes.
Surprisingly, Björk was also perched delicately right on the genius/tedium divide. I was initially reticent about going to see her, what with the generally lukewarm reviews of her most recent album, Volta (my own lukewarm review is in the works) which seemed to major on clanking and screaming, leaving precious little space for something you could actually hum afterwards, and in the absence of the marvellous Antony Hegarty duet The Dull Flame Of Desire the Volta material aired tonight (including Earth Intruders, Declare Independence and Wanderlust) lived down to my modest expectations. There also seemed to be a deal of unfamiliar, or at least unmemorable, material padding the setlist: I own and have enjoyed every Björk album since Post, but there were too many moments tonight when I was utterly lost, with not even a helpful chorus hookline sticking out that I could Google afterwards. More pre-gig reinvestigation of the darker recesses of Homogenic and Vespertine mightve helped me, perhaps. And for all the effort put into the theatrical elements of the presentation band members dressed in Star Wars cantina chic, green laser effects, columns of flame, confetti deluges it was both a little wasted without the magnifying assistance of video screens and perhaps overly-reminiscent of my previous visit to the Empress Ballroom, when The Flaming Lips laid on one of the most staggering live performances its been my privilege to witness. I did like the moment when, on an appropriate lyric, Björk suddenly unfurled talons tens of feet long from the end of her fingers. though.
Enough whingeing, already; what of that genius I mentioned? Well, she played Hyper-Ballad, surely one of the most joyous songs ever written, and skilfully wove it into an elegant set of thumping techno threads. (Long-time collaborator Mark Bell, of LFO, featured in her unconventional backing band, which also included a brass band-cum-choir by the name of Wonderbrass and a respectable-looking, bespectacled gent in short and tie who coaxed chiming magic out of an array of elderly keyboard instruments.) Anchor Song, surprisingly the setlists only encounter with her proper solo debut Debut, was gorgeous and moving, and Pagan Poetry didnt lag far behind in the goosebump stakes. So much invention, so much care, so much talent, but ultimately it made for an evening that seemed to be diminished in the shadow of the sum of such considerable parts.
BJÖRK Volta (One Little Indian)
The sixth full-length solo studio album of her post-Sugarcubes career (all those qualifiers indicating how labyrinthine her discography has become), Volta is a disappointment. It cant be a good sign when an albums packaging is more interesting than its music, especially when that packaging is as infuriating as what we have here. The vinyl edition is presented in a slightly oversized cardboard sleeve, with the artwork taking the form of a sticker that must be removed (carefully, now, you dont want to rip it!) to access the music within. The discs themselves are concealed, Russian doll-fashion, within four successively smaller cardboard sleeves. Lovely, but maddening, and, as with the sleeve of Coldplays X&Y , I cant help feeling that all that profligate use of cardboard is some kinda envirocrime.
Trailed prior to its release variously as Björks hip-hop or pop album, mainly due to the presence of producer Timbaland, Volta is neither of those things. Earth Intruders, for example, works up a potentially intriguing global village tribal clatter and then totally fails to do anything even vaguely melodic with it. Innocence sounds like a jerky jump cut-up of vintage video game soundtracks and chopsocky films, and not even Björks wide-eyed choirgirl icing can redeem it. Theres certainly no lack of invention in the way I See Who You Are combines bass bleeps, pipa (its a kind of Chinese lute, apparently) and brass, but it just doesnt coalesce in a memorable fashion. Hope dives headlong into the ambivalence generated by its subject a possibly pregnant suicide bomber in a way thats either bravely confrontational or shockingly naïve. Youd hope its the former, but setting it to one of the albums more joyous, scampering backing tracks doesnt help clarify the matter. And then theres the regime-troubling Declare Independence, another well-intentioned but frustratingly opaque lyric, a cookie-cutter protest anthem that could be her Blowin In The Wind. Its distorted, vaguely Aphexy rubbery techno stays well away from anything you could call a tune, not that youd hear it anyway behind Björks speak/shriek delivery.
Amidst all this mediocrity it doesnt take much to quality as a highlight. Pneumonia almost manages it with a haunted, mournful brass arrangement and the constant background drizzle of rain, a minor mood piece but a pleasurable one. And the brief bursts of a choir of ships horns and the associated ambient harbour sounds that percolate between some tracks are delightful too. Voltas saving grace, though, is The Dull Flame Of Desire. Its lyrics come from a translation of a work by 19th century Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, as used in Tarkovskys film Stalker, guest Antonys vocals entwine around a towering brass and percussion arrangement, and theres even a tune!
"Volta represents a squandered opportunity sonically as well as musically. Pressed as a double album, averaging 12 to 13 minutes a side, it could potentially sound fantastic. Unfortunately its made from the wibbliest, wobbliest heavy vinyl Ive ever encountered, further undone by warps, great gales of surface noise and spitty sibilance.
BJÖRK Debut (One Little Indian)
16 years later, Björk’s “Debut” (which wasn’t actually her debut, that being an eponymous album recorded when she was 11 years old) still sounds like pop music from another planet. Perhaps its says something about Björk’s subsequent circuitous career path – which often seems like a one woman mission to drag avant garde ideas kicking and screaming into the proximity of the charts – that these gurgling, shiny delights haven’t been diminished by repetition.
Much of “Debut” models a kind of brightly coloured Play-Doh approximation of dance music, but, great as the meaty, beaty, big and bouncy likes of “Human Behaviour”, “Big Time Sensuality” and “Violently Happy” undoubtedly are, they haven’t grown in stature over time in the way the album’s quieter, more reflective and eclectic moments have. Perhaps the key to the album is “There’s More To Life Than This (Recorded Live At The Milk Bar Toilets)”, which brilliantly plots an escape route from the manufactured pleasure it’s superficially celebrating. “Venus As A Boy” is delicious, mysterious and, if you attempt to decode the lyrics, salacious, its offbeat arrangement mixing Indian strings with a rhythm beaten out of what sounds like disused bits of central heating system. To the accompaniment of celestial harp music Björk wraps her peculiar, deliberate diction around “Like Someone In Love” and – kaboom! – invents Joanna Newsom. Perhaps the album’s finest moment is the closing “Anchor Song”, with its saxophone choir and lyrics that could be a rough draft for her masterpiece “Hyper-ballad”, twinkling, gorgeous and possibly unique in pop music.
One Little Indian’s vinyl reissue of “Debut” – part of an admirably extensive black waxing of the label’s back catalogue – promises “the most lavish vinyl available”, boasting of 200 gram vinyl and Direct Metal Mastering. It’s also cut at 45 rpm, potentially, although not always, an indication of heightened fi. Happily, all these innovations have conspired to produce a fabulous-sounding record, with appropriately zingy sonics. Unfortunately the packaging hasn’t received the same care and attention: admittedly, the exclusion of the fabulous “Play Dead”, a bonus track rapidly appended to the album, is excusable on authenticity grounds, but the absence of the original issue’s lyric booklet is less forgivable. Finally, the sleeve and labels haven’t been amended to account for the 100% increase in sides, sloppiness admitted to by the cover sticker. Nevertheless, at half the price of some audiophile vinyl reissue series, it seems churlish to be too critical when the records themselves sound so darn good.
BJÖRK Campfield Market Hall, Manchester 27 June 2011
Under the auspices of the Manchester International Festival (“The world’s first international festival of original, new work and special events”) Björk is unveiling “Biophilia”, “a multimedia project encompassing music, apps, internet, installations and live shows” that “celebrates how sound works in nature, exploring the infinite expanse of the universe, from planetary systems to atomic structure”. Well, I couldn’t have put it better myself. “Biophilia” the live experience makes earth contact in a series of six shows (plus tonight’s preview, announced after the six performances proper) in the Campfield Market Hall, a Grade II listed building built in 1878.
Not a regular rock venue as far as I’m aware, it’s not difficult to see why Björk might be attracted to its unusualness. It still seems to be fit for purpose for its previous occupation, with a large stage taking up the centre of the auditorium and stepped standing areas around the outside. It does make it difficult to pick a vantage point, and what little instrumentation that can be discerned in the gloom hardly clarifies the issue: there’s a workstation of electronic percussion in one corner, a MacBook and synths in another, what looks like a harmonium or two and a pipe organ and a few non-musical-looking contraptions such as a quartet of pendulums and what appears to be a giant gramophone made out of tinfoil. An octagon of video screens is suspended above the stage, so it seems like everybody will get a good look at the visual aspect of the show.
As it turns out, due to the way “Biophilia” is staged it doesn’t really matter where you stand. Eventually what seems like a small army of people (an army of many mes, perhaps) take to the stage, including two musicians, a 20-odd-strong Icelandic female choir and, sporting a ginger frightwig that makes her look like a cross between Toyah and a woodland creature, the artist herself. As song follows song they move their point of application around the circumference of the stage so, eventually, everybody gets close to the performance at some point.
About half of the 105 minute set consists of material from the upcoming, as-yet-unheard “Biophilia” album. Initially at least, songs such as “Thunderbolt” and “Moon” seem like Björk music that’s ripped apart and skeletal, occupying the not inconsiderable gulf between her comparatively conventional albums and the squidgy experimental strangeness of the “Drawing Restraint 9” soundtrack. These songs are peppered with false endings and pregnant pauses, which is a bit of a cruel trick to play on an audience unfamiliar with the material, and, tying in with the album’s title, there’s a pronounced biological and geological theme; singing about DNA and tectonic plates, it’s almost as if she’s drafted in Richard Dawkins as a lyricist. In places, though, she transcends what might sound like dry and dusty subject matter; “Virus”, for example, improbably a love song (well, improbably in the hands other than Björk) already sounds like a classic. “Crystalline” closes with a thrilling barrage of breakbeats apparently created by a furiously battering percussionist, and on several occasions the choir launch into the kind of sliding scale with which The Beatles orchestrated the close of “A Day In The Life”. This new music is good, certainly, but will definitely require time and acclimatisation, which, with tickets to the half-dozen shows to come, I’m happily able to provide. During one song, Björk accuses us something along the lines of “You never thought I had it in me, did you?” Well, heaven forefend.
She intersperses the “Biophilia” material with old, familiar songs, rather more than might have been hoped for or expected under the circumstances. “One Day” is performed in the sparse, exotically percussed arrangement heard on the “Debut Live” album, following which, and bear in mind that this is not the kind of heckle-heavy show that, for instance, Ryan Adams fought through last week in the city, somebody in the audience yells “That was brilliant!” and gets warmly applauded for voicing what we’re probably all feeling. Other highlights include “Isobel”, naturally, and a glimmering “All Is Full Of Love”. The only relative disappointment is “Declare Independence”, to me a collection of beats and yelling in search of a song. It’s still surprisingly exhilarating, even as it fosters the kind of unthinking conformity it decries, but the only moment during the evening that the sound was less than excellent. I don’t know if it’s just sheer good luck or if there’s some science behind this repurposed venue having such excellent acoustics, at least when the wick is dialled back down below eleven.
There are a few shaky moments when it seems like something should be happening but isn’t, but otherwise this preview show seems to be completely up to snuff. It bodes well for the performances proper, and while I won’t be rushing to experience “Biophilia” the iPad application, I can certainly anticipate enjoying the show many times over.
BJÖRK Campfield Market Hall, Manchester 30 June 2011
Three days later we’re all back together again for the official premiere of “Biophilia”, and there’s been some changes made. The show itself is prefaced by context and commentary courtesy of the disembodied voice of, of all people, David Attenborough, apparently recorded just this very day, who (or perhaps more correctly which) pops up throughout the programme offering a word or three (but no more) to introduce each new song. Björk is also a little more communicative tonight, inviting us to sing along with “Declare Independence” (embracing the song’s message I declare my own independence by choosing not to do so) and introducing the band, albeit not every member of the choir. She also alerts us to the presence in the audience tonight of Graham Massey, of Mancunian dance legends 808 State.
Musically, there’s a bonus track tonight that I later learn is “Náttúra”, a single-only release from 2009 that had previously passed me by entirely. She suggests we dance to it, but it seems such an awful arrhythmic clatter I can’t see how. Other random observations I’d not previously noticed include the spotlight operators seated high up in the roof on what look like disembodied umpire chairs; the tinfoil gramophone horn appears to be part of a larger structure that appears (bearing in mind how deceptive appearances can be) to incorporate the guts of a piano and a sewing machine. And really, what exactly are those pendulums contributing musically? It’s the kind of concert that raises more questions than the (informative, free) programme answers, which I suppose is a cause for celebration in itself.
BJÖRK Campfield Market Hall, Manchester 3 July 2011
Illustrating the concept of continuous improvement, there are several changes apparent tonight, the second official “Biophilia” show and third overall. Entering the arena, the audience are serenaded by one of Björk’s magical new instruments playing arrangements of her back catalogue (including “Bachelorette”, “I’ve Seen It All” and “Venus As A Boy”) to itself. Resplendent on the video screens, it looks like the world’s hippest player piano. Countering suspicion (mine included, I admit) that her magical new instruments are just fascinating props, there’s a lot more of this during the evening, with live footage of their operation intercut, a bit bluntly, with the existing visuals. We now see in close-up that the pendulums used during “Solstice” have strings at their bases, which are plucked they pass the mid-point of their trajectory, and also that the bases rotate at the apex of their swing, presumably altering the string plucked and hence the note produced. Similarly, from today’s vantage point I see that the Tesla coil that provides the burping bassline to “Thunderbolt” is lowered from the ceiling for that song and swiftly retracted back into the eaves afterwards, and also that the choir appear to perform barefoot, Sandie Shaw style! It’s also, due to being scheduled for 4PM on an unseasonably Mancunian Sunday afternoon, stiflingly hot in the venue, although however bad it is for the audience it must be much worse for Björk, under the spotlights and that frightwig.
Some minor setlist juggling means we lose “Náttúra” (no disaster) and “All Is Full Of Love” (more of a tragedy) to gain “Unravel” and “Jóga”, suggesting that the perfect setlist hasn’t yet been synthesised from the materials available. Even so, “Biophilia” is a constantly evolving marvel, and the excitement of wondering what it will mutate into next continues.
BJÖRK Campfield Market Hall, Manchester 7 July 2011
Tonight’s iteration of the continuously evolving setlist drops “Unravel” and restores “Hidden Place” to its traditional sixth song position, but we don’t get “All Is Full Of Love” back, which seems a bit mean. If Björk’s voice appeared to be strained at points during the previous show, she seems back on top form tonight. “Crystalline” appears to have sufficiently permeated the audience’s collective subconscious via its streaming release onto the internets for the crowd’s reaction to drown out David Attenborough’s spoken introduction, and “Hidden Place” has new underwater visuals replacing the lurid, borderline disturbing footage of psychedelic worms oozing in and out of the belly of a dead seal. Also, the player piano appears to have added “The Dull Flame Of Desire” to its introductory repertoire.
The usual affectionate heckles of “We love you, Björk!” are joined tonight for the first time by “We love the choir!” which garners a deserving ovation. Oh, and the gramophone / piano / sewing machine device also appears to have solar panels attached to it; not much use in here tonight but a bonus for festival shows, I suppose.
BJÖRK Campfield Market Hall, Manchester 10 July 2011
Having managed to get queuing 20 minutes before the time on the ticket, for this afternoon’s performance I’m closer to the action than ever before, and although the view’s been fine from every vantage point previously it’s genuinely surprising how much more immersive an experience “Biophilia” can be the closer in I am. Standing a few rows behind the instrumentalist Matt Robertson I notice how “Isobel” is just – just! - voices, percussion and him playing the bassline, live and in real time, on a keyboard, which in turn gets me thinking how most of the arrangements are similarly stripped back, disguised by the scale and heft that a 24-piece choir can bring to what might otherwise be pretty flimsy proceedings. Other things that have almost certainly happened at every show that I notice for the first time include the choir pulling up the hoods of their costumes for “Where Is The Line?” and the ever-awesome “Mutual Core”; Björk generating the chord changes for “Dark Matter” by thumping an iPad; the merriment that her woodland creature wiggling causes; that there are actually two mystery organs duetting on the introductory music.
Substantial differences are limited to the return of the psychedelic seal-devouring footage for “Hidden Place” and the omission of “It’s Not Up To You” in favour of “Unravel”, which wouldn’t be my preference but further vindicates my decision to spring for all of these “Biophilia” shows. Oh, and one of the choir is celebrating her 19th birthday (the one looking as if she’s wishing the stage would open up and swallow her, presumably) so, as instructed, we sing “Happy Birthday” to her.
BJÖRK Campfield Market Hall, Manchester 13 July 2011
What do we notice tonight? Well, maybe “Jóga”’s a capella coda is new, and there seems to be much more CGI Björk in the accompanying visuals, but perhaps I’ve not been paying sufficient attention previously. During the encore, at precisely the moment that I’m complacently expecting “Unravel”, probably my favourite ever Björk song “Hyperballad” makes its “Biophilia” debut. Initially it seems as though the choir are scandalously underused, until I realise that, as with “Isobel”, they’re actually singing the string arrangement. Finally, the clattery racket of “Declare Independence” is once replaced with the clattery racket of “Náttúra”; no great shame, but no great difference either. And tonight, Björk informs us, Matthew Herbert is in the house!
Otherwise, though, it’s just another great “Biophilia” show, albeit one in which it seems like there’s a smattering of vocal and instrumental flubs , although it’s hardly as if I’m standing there following along with the score. On balance, though “Hyperballad” alone is enough to elevate this to the top of the “Biophilia” pile for me, further justifying attending them all. Now, if she could somehow fit “Hyperballad”, “All Is Full Of Love” and “It’s Not Up To You” in the same setlist, well, that would be something,
Tonight (and during the previous show, if I’d been quick-witted enough to realise) the ushers are handing out photocopied A3 sheets describing Björk’s many magical new instruments, yet another aspect in which the shows seem to be in a state of constant evolution. It appears that the solar-powered gramophone / piano / sewing machine is actually called a sharpsichord (and yes, it is solar powered) and the reactable played by musical director Matt Robertson makes “performance of live electronic music a visual and interactive experience”, which is somewhat ironic as it was barely touched when I was standing a few rows behind it during the previous show.
BJÖRK Campfield Market Hall, Manchester 16 July 2011
So, to the seventh and final Manchester “Biophilia” show, and what a long, strange but consistently entertaining trip it’s been. Key differences compared with the previous gig are minimal during the main set: maybe there are a few more sustained chords during “Thunderbolt”, perhaps added in a successful attempt to prevent the audience applauding mid-song. However, during the encore Björk announces that she’s rehearsed something a little more “hooligan”, making good on that promise by unveiling the headache techno of “Pluto”.
Otherwise, it’s “Biophilia” business as usual, which is to say a brilliant, cutting edge melange of music, image, technology, education, invention and imagination. One of my gig buddies, lamenting that he’s only signed up for the final night, proclaims it as good as show as he’s ever seen by anybody (and he’s seen The Blue Nile!). I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it’s an experience I’ve never had before at a mere concert, and I hope I’ll meet the measure of it again.