As Björk strays further and further from the glories of her pop-leaning past, she finds an excitably challenging realm of music to explore in the ever-widening scope of her distinctive sound. Arguably 2011’s most difficult musical project, Biophilia was also the year’s most rewarding release. Forget that it was the first app album, Biophilia once again managed the arduous task of taking highly abstracted ideas and turning them into dazzling, harmonious sounds. The album was indeed an overly ambitious project, with the artist exploring ideas both astronomical and metaphysical and employing the use of a few instruments made especially for the project (most notably the tesla coil).
While Biophilia was very much part of the expected trajectory that Björk would follow in her increasingly avant-garde experiments, the album did leave some listeners cold. If there were any criticisms to be made, it was that the singer seemingly favoured conceptual designs more than she did actual tunes. For those who prefer three-minute radio pop songs, this would be an understandable argument; Björk left the dancefloor for the science lab years ago and the absence of the four-on-the-floor grooves is still felt amongst some of her most ardent fans. Perhaps, then, it should be considered that Biophilia always did have a visual component and that the concept came fully alive during her live shows. Or at the very least, knowing that there would be a clear audience in sight, Björk would hopefully rework some of the material into crowd-pleasing numbers.
One listen to Biophilia Live, and you get a much clearer idea of the grand scope the artist was going for. Much of the material to be found on the studio album retains its familiar form on these live renderings. Because Biophilia has quite an expansive dynamic, the live show only further stretches the range of the album’s scope to give the songs an immense flush of atmosphere. For the most part, Björk doesn’t mess too much with the original arrangements for a good chunk of the songs she performs here. Only a few numbers have some notable revisions, most of which come from her older catalogue of material. “Isobel” from 1995’s Post has been scaled down from its huge, panoramic sweep to a minimal, skeletal frame. “Possibly Maybe”, also from Post, gets a reworking here from its lush, otherworldly R&B groove to a buzzing electronic alien grind. In some instances, Biophilia Live really allows for some of the beauty from its studio album to truly reveal itself once it’s performed in a live setting. The live version here of “Virus” strips away the plodding beats featured on the studio album, keeping only the sharp plucks of strings and the ringing bells; it places emphasis on the supple melody that is slightly obscured by the beats on the original version.
As Björk’s live shows become increasingly sprawling in their design and execution, less attention seems to be paid on the arrangements and the dynamics of her songs – or rather, their potential to be reworked into something entirely new onstage. Previous Björk shows from her earlier years relied on the excitement of new arrangements of material; it was always a pleasure to hear how far the artist would take her experiments on stage. This is primarily where Biophilia Live is a letdown. If you own much of Björk’s work and are familiar with the structures of her songs, there’s no surprise here; most of the material, starting from Vespertine and on, follows the blueprints quite closely. It makes this collection indeed a pleasant listen, but rather non-essential. At the very least, it should whet the appetite for the lushly grand gesture of Vulnicura. Having been given a rushed early release, Vulnicura shows how far the artist has gone into the empyreal universe of her inimitable sound, making that album the necessary purchase.
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