Björk: bastards

One Little Indian

Your enjoyment of Björk’s recent recordings is more than likely determined by your willingness to embrace her increasingly extreme flights of high-concept artistic fancy. For Medulla we had an album made almost entirely of vocal samples; Drawing Restraint 9 was a whale-obsessed soundtrack to her partner Matthew Barney’s art film project, which fused East and West, old and new in sound and subject matter; Biophilia was released as a collection of interactive iPad apps (somewhat bizarrely introduced by David Attenborough, waxing grandly about humanity’s relationship with sound and the universe), recorded using a collection of bespoke instruments both electronic and analogue; and so on.

With all those conceptual shenanigans going around each album on you might have been forgiven for wondering if the songs themselves were in danger of becoming a bit of an afterthought. Personally, I found Biophilia an interesting exercise, but rather unlovable as an album. The concept was intriguing, and on several tracks Björk’s singing was as compelling as ever, but as an album it seemed mired in its own process. The sparse instrumentation might have been intended to highlight the innovative instruments, but mostly ended up giving the songs an empty, underdeveloped feel; instead of the song driving the use of instruments, it felt the other way round. Many songs were also buried in endless layers of extraneous vocal effects, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for the thin musical backing.

In any case, as yet another part of the Biophilia project (as it was conceived, rather than a mere ‘album’ in the traditional sense), the tracks on the album were given to a range of other artists to remix. Björk has, of course, always been more open than most artists to exploring what remixes can make of her music, and indeed to collaboration as an artistic strategy in general.

But with Biophilia the remixes were perhaps inevitably handled differently than is usually the case. Rather than remixed tracks being released as B-sides to accompany album singles, the whole album was remixed (many songs more than once), with the results being put out as a companion/promotional series in its own right. A total of 17 tracks were released, available on eight CDs/LPs/digital downloads, with custom packaging.

As with the rest of Biophilia it’s open to question how much of this represents real artistic innovation and how much is gimmickry or interesting marketing. I think it’s reasonable though to give Björk the benefit of the doubt here. Giving the remixes star billing on a series of small releases did seem to put the tracks in something of a new light, as different-but-equals to the original recordings rather than just as B-sides filler for fans.

So now we have bastards, a collection of remixes apparently brought together as a taster for those without the energy or interest to seek out the full remix series. The tracks included are not, according to Björk, necessarily intended to represent the best of the remixes, only the ones that made “the strongest whole” as an album.

For that reason, presumably, the sequencing of bastards bears no resemblance to that of its source album, though almost the whole of Biophilia is represented here – only the strange, sweeping story-song/science lecture “Cosmogony” is missing. A version by Spanish musician El Guincho was included in the full remix series, but it was a heavily abstracted version that reduced the song to six and a half minutes of blurry vocal effects over a monotonous beat; it was wisely not included here. Perhaps the song is just too much of its own strange world to take successfully to remixing.

Given the issues with Biophilia itself, the album is ripe for remixing, and the artists chosen have generally done a good job. Inevitably an album of remixes will be less coherent than an album with a single production team, but what’s striking on bastards is how the surprising diversity of artistic approaches works in favor of the album. Most often, the focus of producers tasked with remixing album tracks is on creating dance anthems out of the source material. Here though, something altogether more interesting is going on.

The wide-ranging approach is indicated up front, the album opening with Syrian musician Omar Souleyman’s remix of “Crystalline”. The track replaces the original’s music box tinkling with hand-claps, scattershot rhythms and squalling middle-eastern riffs, with Björk and Souleyman’s voices intertwining throughout. It’s a strange, totally compelling piece of work.

The second Souleyman track, a reworking of “Thunderbolt”, doesn’t feel as successful. The remake is interesting enough as a piece of music, but is so far removed from its source material that it feels like an entirely unrelated song. The song is a maelstrom of guitar riffs from start to finish, with Björk reduced to a ghostly presence that fades in and out of the mix apparently at random. True, I didn’t especially enjoy the original track’s funereal pace, staccato electronic blurps, and endlessly layered vocals. But when a remake makes so little use of its original, it feels a bit of a betrayal of the spirit of collaboration remixing is supposed to involve.

Two versions of Biophilia‘s highlight, “Mutual Core”, are included. These New Puritans add a backdrop of Pacific chants and smooth out the original’s schizophrenic pulse, creating a warmer, more contemplative track – it might be the best song on either album, recalling the lovely quirkiness of early Björk tracks like “The Anchor Song”. Matthew Herbert’s remix is a less radical re-imagining, giving the song a glacial tone and more momentum but otherwise keeping the song’s structure intact.

One of the problems with Biophilia was the flat middle section of the album, made up of “Hollow” and “Dark Matter”. Dubstep producers 16-Bit try gamely to add some life to to the former with the addition of a range of glitchy beats, but the track resists help – it remains too shapeless and self-absorbed for its own good, and dragging it out to seven minutes doesn’t help anything. Canadian sound artist Alva Noto’s deconstruction of “Dark Matter” is more successful. The original track is so subdued that it barely registers, a haze of processed coos and whispers that quickly becomes irritating. The remodeled version cuts and splices the track into something almost unrecognizable yet true to the true to the spirit of the original, finding surprising drama in the process.

Elsewhere, the remix of “Virus” by Hudson Mohawke loses the soft beat and sweet yearning of the original track, instead reaching for a more epic vision of the song backed a more orchestral arrangement of horns, guitars and keyboards. It’s a trade-off that ends up being just about worth making. Experimental hip-hop group Death Grips’ version of “Sacrifice” doesn’t stray too far from the original, but bustles with a paranoid energy and a heavier punch.

In the press release that accompanied the album, Björk claimed that the remixes’ main success was in giving the songs more beats; “legs to dance on”. That might be true, but it doesn’t tell the full story. Many of the tracks improve on the originals not by adding beats, but by taking them in broader, more dynamic, and in many cases more interesting directions than those on the original album.

Sure, these tracks are all available elsewhere, and not all of the remixes are successful – the second half of the album in general isn’t as strong as the first. But still, as a package the album works better than could be expected. For a remix album, in fact, this is remarkably close to essential listening.

RATING 7 / 10