Bjork - Biophilia

by Miz DeShannon Rating:9.5 Release Date:2011-10-10

There couldn't be a more technologically up-to-date way of releasing your music than via the much-loved (in some places) Apple and an iPhone app, with fans experiencing your music the world over while wobbling devices around in the air discovering new sounds and songs with every twist and turn. More interesting than a wander around HMV in any case.

The iPhone and iPad apps for Biophilia allow users to trace the music in circles and shapes on a screen, and releases a new part of the 10-song concept album with each update, so the intended experience is lost when listening to this piece on CD - the whole point is to be totally absorbed, to have some futuristic interactive kind of musical journey, like those which people dreamed about in the 60s when Star Trek first hit our screens.

This release is making those dreams reality. From the delicate sounds of traditional Japanese music to electronic wails and bass so heavy it makes your face vibrate, Biophilia is experimental in the true sense of the word. It has all manner of unexplainable samples and sounds and a variety of orchestral instruments, mixed with drum n bass production and breakbeats. Björk has always fitted into pop-dance-electronica with a wide range of influences to embellish her pieces, from folk, jazz, world music and avant-garde, working with vocalists from Mike Patton to Rahzel, and it has been said Biophilia is the best piece she has produced since 2001's Vespertine, with the video for single 'Crystalline' made with film-maker Michel Gondry. Musically, Biophilia is following somewhat in the footsteps of earlier work Homogenic: experimental, extrovert, enormous, and similar to the succesful Vespertine, using orchestras, choirs, delicate vocals and sounds from everyday objects.

Björk has branched into the conceptual and narrative previously, but this time has moved with the times with an immense live performance including giant musical machines and a full female choir, creating a kind of 'scientific musical' based on technological innovation and themes of science and nature. Debuting Biophilia as an art piece earlier this year at Manchester International Festival, I wondered how it would transfer to just an audio experience, but it does, very successfully.

Starting with 'Moon', dominated by a plucked harp-like instrument that sounds like a Japanese kugo, each track grows in sound and develops with beautiful vocals and heavy beats. 'Mutual Core' and 'Crystalline' have the suprising hit of breakbeats and could easily hold their own in any club set, both encompassing the album, rapidly moving from heavy to delicate sounds. Each piece evokes a feeling of the subject it is representing; 'Cosmonology' has soaring vocals creating an atmospheric sound, with singing and ghostly samples rather than Björk's signature slightly cutting wail. The layers of deep, sharp, strings and wind instruments and harmonies on 'Dark Matter' and 'Hollow' are ethereal with strange sounds and intense organ noises you would usually associate with dying computers and sinister film soundtracks.

The album even has a love story - 'Virus' - which returns to light, tinkly sounds of Japanese music. "Like a virus needs a body/ Soft tissue needs blood/ Someday, I'll find you," she croons. It's all very soothing, and the closing track 'Solstice' is a perfect point of ending and relaxation, like the time you'd spend at the end of the day, gazing across something lovely and nice, a countryside view for instance.

Thinking about feelings created in music like Vivaldi's Four Seasons and John Zorn's experimental jazz work, Biophilia is definitely on a par. Björk doesn't really go for poetic lyricism, she's more of an unorthodox and un-poetic story-teller, so the lyrics are at times non-sensical in a traditional songwriting sense, but that's her all over. The depth of thinking in a variety of mechanical, instrumental and human sounds and musical influences coming together supporting Björk's unusual vocal, creates a cocophony of beauty and a rollercoaster of emotion.

Biophilia is exciting listening. It takes a lot to make a piece of music that is new and fresh and inspiring, and although there are obviously elements that are found elsewhere, the method and manner Björk has put them together in is amazing. An inteligent juxtaposition of bleeps and glitches against the melancholic choir put together among unusual time-signatures - the contrast is noticeable in the live show, and thankfully on the recording too.

Writing all this down for readers to understand Biophilia and listening on a CD (however beautiful that may sound) still doesn't convey the whole experience. The project was years in planning with programmers, film-makers, even David Attenborough and National Geographic, so some waffle on a page is incapable of doing it justice. It's as though Björk has finally arrived as a performance artist, not just a musician.

But still Biophilia could be a case of style over substance as far as a music review is concerned - whimsical and experimental in some ways but not so in others. It does make one wonder whether there is too much of a focus on the creation and the aesthetic, or whether this is the way music will start to present itself, moving on from the now simple combination of song-and-video, and reaching further into an experiential presentation? Indulgent in this case maybe, but controlled and thoughtful and mindfull of the user at all points.

Whatever your thoughts are on the final product, all I can think is, if only Mrs Saunders our Year Nine teacher had the foresight that Björk has, and taught biology to a soundtrack of music, maybe my class would have turned into scientists instead of insurance brokers.

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