Biophilia: Bjork's Mastery of Modern Media

Bjork's 2011 offering is a light in the digital darkness of autotune and overused synth.
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Bjork's 2011 offering is a light in the digital darkness of autotune and overused synth.

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Over the last 15 or so years the internet has exploded onto the mainstream and forced itself into the public consciousness. More than that, though, internet connectivity, social media and open source technologies have become a key part not of only how we consume culture and media but a key input and driving force behind wide-ranging array of innovative, creative endeavors.

At the more vulgar end of the scale it has allowed the likes of Kitty and A&AP Rocky and even One Direction to build huge fan bases through effective social networking rather than any discernible musical talent, but at the other end we are seeing the birth of some truly inventive, interesting and interactive music and multimedia projects

A significant step for mainstream artists making use of these changes in media technology was Björk’s 2011 release Biophilia. It’s impossible to discuss Biophilia in musical terms alone as the project was more than that. Much, much more.

I’ve always thought of Björk’s music as a beautiful entwining of the organic and the technological; sumptuous string arrangements and vibrant, innocent vocals flowing over and through almost awkward, glitch laden beats. On Biophilia Björk embraced the themes of technology and nature to encompass “music, apps, internet, installations, and live shows”. This coalescence of the natural and the technological resulted in the development of several new instruments designed to express that relationship to its fullest. The gameleste (a combination of a gamelan, an Indonesian melodic percussion instrument, and a celesta, a piano-like instrument that sounds similar to a glockenspiel, though with a softer timbre) is used on a number of tracks while a Tesla Coil is employed to create tones for the sombre beauty of Thunderbolt.

Nature is also echoed in the song structures of Biophilia. Opening track Moon is infused with various musical cycles created to echo lunar movements, Thunderbolt’s arpeggios, we are told, represent the time between a lightning strike and a thunderclap. Solstice references the movement of the planets and the Earth’s rotation, with pendulums used as a nod to the Foucault Pendulum (a device named after French physicist Léon Foucault and designed to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth), and Virus describes “fatal relationships” such as that between a virus and a cell.

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Underpinning this reverence to nature are the choppy glitches and distorted beats we’ve come to expect from the Icelandic beauty, but she has now added a harder, darker, techno influenced sound on tracks like first single Crystalline (including a breakcore outtro that while not matching the likes of Venetian Snares or The Panacea still holds its own). Sacrifice and Mutual Core also recall the production values one would usually associate with producers like Aaron Funk or Tim Shaw (Venetian Snares and Tim Exile, respectively). It’s harder and edgier and more aggressive than we’ve ever heard Björk before. It’s an exciting progression that brings in and builds on her work on Medúlla in particular.

Most interesting about the Biophilia project is the marriage of the thematic content of the album to its packaging and delivery, both recorded and live. The album was released not only on CD but as an interactive iPod App that demonstrated through 3D computer modelling and high-definition video the intricacies of the natural processes each song is concerned with. Users could listen to the album in its natural, recorded state, or they could play with, manipulate and remix the tracks using the iPod app. I was lucky enough to see the live show at Manchester’s Campfield Market Hall and was utterly blown away. It was theatrical, grand, intimate, beautiful and utterly fantastic. The themes expressed throughout Biophilia were dexterously woven into the live experience. The tesla coil was present and correct but this imposing industrial tone maker’s imposing nature was offset by the ethereal, natural presence of a 24 piece female choir providing backing vocals throughout. It really was a masterpiece of live theatre and conceptual music.

For all its conceptual artistry, though, Biophilia is, at its core, a classic Björk album stacked with complexity and simplicity in equal measure. Perhaps it lacks the poppy tangibility of her earlier work and that may put off occasional listeners, but to those of us who crave for something original and artistic in this world of vocoded clothes horses constantly reproducing the same three and a half minutes of radio-friendly trash; Biophilia is the fix we’ve been waiting for.