by / July 18th, 2011 /

Bjork: Biophilia – Manchester

The PR description of Bjork’s Biophilia shows as a celebration of “natural phenomena from the atomic to the cosmic” slightly overstates the reality of these performances. This celebration is played out by Bjork singing some tunes about the universe while video screens show some rather rudimentary footage of planets and cellular structures. Hardly jaw-dropping stuff, except for the fact that when Bjork gets things right, they verge on being out of this world.

The show begins with the pre-recorded voice of David Attenborough, explaining what Biophilia is all about. Introduction over, Bjork and her musicians enter through an archway consisting of gigantic wooden pendulums (which are later used to create harp-like sounds). There is no stage as such, more a cordoned-off area on the floor, around which the audience gather – almost boxing-ring style. The advantage of this is that you’re never more than 15 feet away from Bjork; the disadvantage is that you spend half the performance looking at her back, if you can see her at all.

However, it’s the tunes that we’re here for, not the science gimmicks, and the songs mostly triumph. As the gig is heavy with new material from her forthcoming Biophilia album, some of these songs fail to make a huge impact on first listen, yet the likes of ‘Thunderbolt’, ‘Crystalline’ and ‘Cosmogony’ all stand out as highlights. But it’s the old tracks that really impress – ‘Joga’, ‘Where Is The Line?’ and ‘Isobel’ sounding particularly astonishing tonight.

Despite having 26 musicians backing her up, much of the music is quite minimal. Occasionally, instruments play by themselves – there are quite a number of odd instruments employed tonight such as a gamaleste (a celeste with bronze gamelan bars), a reactable (a digital table on which blocks are moved around to create sounds) and a singing tesla coil (electrical sparks are used to create heart-stopping bass arpeggios). For the most part, though, these are used subtly and unobtrusively (although the singing tesla coil is particularly awesome). But particular praise must go to Bjork’s 24-piece Aryan girl choir who add an otherworldly element to the performance. They bring a liveliness, humour and sheer awesomeness to the show. And in a sense, the real star of this display of “natural phenomena” tonight is the human voice. Because combining the majesty of Bjork’s vocal chords with that of her Icelandic choir results in something truly cosmic.