Campfield Market Hall, Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester
Monday June 27, 2011
Beyonce is without doubt the best solo female performer in the world right now Björk is without doubt the best solo female performer in the world right now. Necessary hyperbole aside, I feel as though people who read my reviews of late are going to think I’m being disingenuous with my liberal distribution of superlatives throughout both Ryan Adams and this. Put simply, seeing my favourite male soloist and my favourite female soloist in the space of five days in two extraordinary venues is a pretty special thing.
Kicking off her three-week Manchester residency as part of the city's International Festival, tonight is ‘preview’ night, which basically means cheaper tickets at the expense of possible fuck ups, of which I noticed none. The venue is splendid, with the audience standing around the outside, completely encircling the stage in the middle. Backed by a twenty-something piece Icelandic female choir, wearing blue and gold dresses, and some phenomenal (no exaggeration) multi-instrumentalist-cum-geniuses, Björk enters the fray sporting an enormous cloud of orange hair set against garish blue and white face paint, complete with spangly gold dress and huge black wedges. She is chirpy and funny throughout and her piercing vocals provide a bigger impact live than on record, with each melodic exclamation vibrating the membrane of my middle ear in a way like never before.
For all the vocal qualities on show tonight, special mention must also go to the musicians. When I first heard that Biophilia was going to be the world’s first app-album, recorded partly on an iPad, my heart sank a little. However, hearing new songs such as ‘Virus’, ‘Moon’ and ‘Crystalline’ justifies the choice. Apparently the latter involves a ‘gameleste’, which is a modified celesta so that it sounds like a gamelan which is played remotely using an iPad. Whatever, there are basically lots of interesting instruments in the middle of the room, most of which I have never seen or heard before, but which go on to provide a stunning show. Each piece is accompanied by a short film, displayed on eight double-sided screens arranged in a hexagon above the central stage.
The marketing for tonight’s show led me to believe it would be completely new material from her forthcoming seventh album Biophilia, so it’s a pleasant surprise when classics such as ‘Hidden Place’ and ‘All Is Full Of Love’ are sounded. The choir works well, especially on the takes from 2004’s a capella record Medulla, which include the solemn, brooding ‘Sonnets/Unrealities XI’, the poppy ‘Mouth’s Cradle’ and the bass-heavy ‘Where Is The Line?’. Softer, more operatic tones are required for the celestial ‘It’s Not Up To You’ and the sublime ‘Isobel’.
New single ‘Crystalline’ really blows the roof off with the choir’s chorus chant synchronised with ninety-degree turns to face each side of the audience. It’s fantastic to watch the perfectly executed routine, rotating like an autonomous machine to the electronic beats and rhythms, making the most of the 360 degree vantage point.
The encore provides two magnificent, contrasting moments. The first, minus the choir, is the tenderly performed ‘One Day’, where one of the instrumentalists plays something which resembles Dion Dublin’s ‘Dube’, only it’s shaped like a UFO rather than a cube. It’s bizarre, but produces the loveliest sounds from the tips of his fingers as he taps away at the odd shape resting on his knee. This intimate moment is succeeded by the return of the choir for a full on rave to closer ‘Declare Independence’. It’s an explosive end to a wonderful night of spectacular music, sounds, vocals and visuals.
Madonna is praised for “reinventing” herself with every new album when all she really does is work with a different producer and faxes in her vocals every time she makes a comeback. Given her recent output, even Lady Gaga would kill for a new single like ‘Crystalline’. But to compare the infinitely superior Björk to these mere pop mortals is a severe injustice. Now age 45 (yes, really), she shows no signs of losing her originality with every release and her position as the most unique artist in the world today is unrivalled. One of the most fascinating live experiences I’ve ever witnessed.
words: Ste Grindrod
Björk plays the Museum of Science and Industry for the Manchester International Festival on June 30th and July 3rd, 7th, 10th, 13th and 16th. Single ‘Crystalline’ is released digitally on June 30th; the album Biophilia is released in September via a series of apps that allows you to create your own versions of the songs, or something.