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Björk – Harpa, Iceland Airwaves 16/10/11

October 27, 2011

Originally posted on The 405

Iceland Airwaves review

It’s Sunday evening. I am sleep deprived to the point of psychosis. It’s been a fantastical, exhausting and somewhat surreal few days already in this gorgeous land; so bearing this in mind what better way is there to finish off the spectacle that is Iceland Airwaves with a performance from Björk? Ah yes, that’ll compliment this state of mind marvellously.

Even during the pre-gig there is a heightened sense of surreality at the grandiose venue of Harpa. Mooching around becomes a game of spot the musical-hero; walking alongside James Murphy at one point, then spotting Einar Stray and Nedry whilst tUnE-yArDs stands behind me once inside. A couple of what you’d call circus mirrors outside are present for entertaining body-distorting fun – and also an extremely strict no-photography ban is in place – which quite frankly is an idea welcomed given the problems of overly intrusive photography at the festival overall.

As for the show itself; the venue inside of Harpa has the audience encircling the performance area of all 360 degrees and thus beholds a feeling of deep intimacy in this modestly sized interior, and yet nothing but utter respect exudes from the transfixed audience.

Now I’m sure you are well-aware of the concept behind Biophilia and thus I won’t pontificate about the innovative beast for too long, but suffice to say that it is the worlds first ever app album (some parts recorded using an iPad), and this concept is very evident in the form of eight tv screens playing video installation pieces for all of the Biophilia tracks. Some are hugely moving to the point of an overloading of senses and emotions – the video for ‘Mutual Core’ featuring tectonic plates shifting and volcanoes forming is simply fucking spectacular. Earth shattering in terms of prose and geographic fact.

At times it’s almost too much to take it. There’s already a lot to be enchanted by on stage, Björk being her enigmatic, fragile-petite yet powerful self, as a team of choir girls (roughly twenty) not only sound phenomenally out of this world but get into the spirit massively in terms of performance, dancing and generally owning the stage. Their contribution seriously cannot be underrated.

Most of the set is of course from Biophilia – with David Attenborough on tape introducing these in his authoritarian educational vernacular, as the drummer near me thrashes a barely recognisable electronic drum kit. Though a smattering of older tracks are featured – particularly for the three song encore. Now, the encore, talking of which…

It’s the oddest gap I ever witness between songs. For at least 10 minutes, the audience claps ferociously – 10 minutes is actually a very lengthy piece of time when you dissect this figure. Try clapping now for one minute, I actually challenge you. You’ve given up haven’t you? You woeful, spineless Nixon-esque quitter. It’s a long fucking time in summary. In tandem with this a rather strange phenomena occurs.

The claps at various points merge and then synchronise semi-spontaneously, yet precisely, to form a beat. Then dissipate. But then a minute later the cycle would start again, and this continued to happen. Then on top of this foot stomps are added systematically to create this performance itself from the audience. It all feels similar to a theory discussed by Adam Curtis in his most recent documentary “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” – where the pseudo-intellectual discussed Loren Carpenter’s experiment with the video game Pong, where a crowd of hundreds had to operate a single game, eventually pulling their paddles simultaneously in an act of collective consciousness for each shot.

Anyway, it may sound insignificant that a crowd claps, but it feels like a moment at this time, and in this space.

As for the encore itself…

The first of the triptych is a glorious and moving stripped-back version of early Björk track ‘One Day’, featuring just herself on stage. The second in the mid-triptych and first double from Volta comes in the form of ‘Náttúra’ before ending on ‘Declare Independence’. Again it becomes an audience spectacular as Bjork, the pitch-perfect choir and audience join in the pulsating demand of “Don’t let them Do that to you” – “HIGHER HIGHER”. The spine, boy does it tingle.

It’s an experience. At times, some of the new work form Biophilia is difficult to digest – but what would you expect from such an artist who does – and has – continually pushed, shoved and screamed at those boundaries consistently for over twenty years? The showcase is a delight to experience in the heart of Björk’s culture and one feels an affinity in some fledgling form (how can one experience nostalgia for a place never visited?) – and one in which I will never forget.

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