02 Arena, London
Tuesday 19 November 2019
A Cornucopia of Riches
What did I just experience?
Was it a gig? (a term now debased anyway as it’s often linked with the word ‘economy’) Was it a show? A multimedia experience? Certainly, it was a fascinating glimpse into the mind of Björk Guðmundsdóttir.
Nobody calls her that now of course, except her mother (and then only when she’s upset with her daughter). But to be reminded of Björk’s Icelandic roots is appropriate as the evening opened with songs from the Hamrahlíðarkórinn or The Hamrahlid Choir from Iceland. Björk told us later that she joined the choir was when was 16. They sang Icelandic songs, beautifully and a cappella, including a final song in which vocal glissandi combined with a tuneful theme. Not easy – The Sixteen or the Tallis Scholars would have enjoyed the challenge.
So we established from the start that this wasn’t going to be conventional rock show, although as Björk said later ‘flutes rock’ (who knew)? The main instrumentalists were seven flautists (of course…) Standing on the high platform on the stage, silhouetted against the video screen, the flautists raised their flutes to the heavens like angelic Pipers at the Gates of Dawn.
Another Pink Floyd reference springs to mind – some of the visuals early on were reminiscent of the animations that Gerald Scarfe did for the Floyd when they played live – surreal plants intertwining:
And Pink Floyd are useful reference point; they started the idea of a rock gig being more than just about the music, from their early psychedelic light shows to building A Wall across the stage. Björk took this much, much further – her visuals were enigmatic, wildly colourful, sometimes 3-dimensional. At one point it appeared that humans were falling from the sky, at another a monumental prison cell was invaded by large objects crashing through the walls, attacking the humanoid creature inside. Two conjoined human half- beings writhed and danced in space. An avatar of Björk sometimes mouthed the words she sang. There was no Wall but a huge diaphanous curtain which was sometimes pulled across the front of the stage to give depth to the visuals, and at other times pulled back to give crystalline clarity to the images.
Björk herself stood mostly at the front of the stage, wearing a mask that obscured the top half of her face but didn’t obscure her mouth out of which flowed a voice more mellifluous than has been heard from her ever before. She even went inside an onstage igloo to sing one of the songs on her own, our only view of her from a camera, her voice stunningly clear.
There was only really one slight weakness to what would otherwise have been one of the best shows ever. There were times when some of the songs, at least those from her latest album Utopia had what Alex Petridis in his Guardian review of the record describes as having ‘central melodies which sometimes seem troublingly slender’. But that’s hardly worth mentioning.
What is worth mentioning is that very few live experiences (and experiences in life) compare with what I saw last night…one that does is the Biophilia concert at Manchester International Festival in 2011, starring and created by a little-known Icelandic singer called Björk Guðmundsdóttir.