Bjork “Biophilia” Review (Boston Globe, 10/9/11)

Posted on November 6, 2011

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Björk’s ‘Biophilia’ project shoots for the stars

Once a user navigates past the title on Björk’s new “Biophilia’’ app for the iPad, the screen is plunged into a sea of constellations floating in a loose 3-D formation. David Attenborough’s knightly documentary voice droops in to introduce the big idea – “Biophilia’’ is about a love of all things seen and unseen in nature. He notes, “We are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through technology.’’

From there, we’re on our own. “Biophilia,’’ the new collection of songs that will be released Tuesday both as a CD on Nonesuch Records and as iPhone/iPad apps for $1.99 apiece, is billed as a new paradigm for the way music is distributed and experienced. It pairs game play and essays with endless variations on the songs, which users can manipulate with sparse interfaces (sometimes the games themselves) for homemade, off-key remixes of melodies. For these moves, the creatively restless Icelander can’t be faulted. Rebirth ballad “Moon’’ lays it out best, when she sweetly croons – in a line that no one else could pull off with a straight face – that it’s time to “kick it through the starthole.’’

The “Biophilia’’ project is a throwback to the clumsy days of the ’90s multimedia where our guides hardly knew where they were going in the first place. Back then, anonymous avant-pop crew the Residents made early award-winning CD-ROMs “Bad Day on the Midway’’ and “Freak Show, where users searched for animations, song lyrics, and sketched out story lines to go along with the songs. They seemed like the future at the time, but that format never really caught on. This was around the same time that Björk was making a name for herself with videos for songs like “Human Behaviour’’ and “It’s oh so Quiet,’’ two works of art that still hold up.

There’s not a lot of replay value in Björk’s new mode, but it still works humbly well and the computer visuals go a long way toward expanding on the fragile, chamber orchestra feel of the music. Constellation and cell-scape animations dance like old wireframe arcade games to the warmth of her familiar cooing.

On its own, the music has the hush of an early computer age organ recital, with angelic choruses piped in from the wings. It’s a reverent, religious affair. There are hints of Stockhausen and shards of drum ’n’ bass (also kind of a throwback at this point), but this is largely Björk at her most collected, reclaiming the whispering harpy role that Joanna Newsom borrowed for her career. This side of her is backed up by a collection of rattling, jangly instruments custom built for the album, including the music-box chiming of the “gameleste’’ and a set of harp strings plucked by pendulums, which was engineered by MIT grad Andy Cavatorta.

Robotic lead single “Crystalline,’’ which appeared last month as the album’s opening salvo, serves as an elemental balance to the hymnal “Cosmogony,’’ a lush choral, electronics, and brass band arrangement played before the same altar of natural creation that Terrence Malick worshipped at this summer in “The Tree of Life.’’ They’re the only moments of the album that spoon-feed listeners much of a melody or a structure. Even then, the “Crystalline’’ app encourages users to fly through computer tunnels, altering the song by collecting crystals. When the game’s over, the final jumble of pink and teal crystals can be e-mailed to a friend – it looks like a graph generated in Excel.

The rest of the songs take more work. “Hollow’’ is particularly confounding, with a synth line that sounds like someone jammed a randomly punched player piano roll into an old floppy disc drive. Björk winds thorny passages of text through her typically twisted melodies. She slowly orbits howling hooks that seem to disappear just as they materialize, like the triumphant slow reveal in “Mutual Core.’’

One song app that works well (they aren’t all released yet) is the ballad “Virus,’’ an unwinnable game about symbiotic and parasitic relationships. It’s screensaver simple, but manages a few tender moments as a cell gets chewed to ribbons by overwhelming green infections, which the player hopelessly tries to flick away.

A tribute to what we know and we don’t, “Biophilia’’ has the ambitious, idealist spirit of an exhibit at Epcot. It’s not so much a paradigm shift as a return to a time when scientific exploration was charged by a collective excitement – a time when we could afford space shuttles. It can’t be an accident that so much of the album echoes the old Vangelis synthscapes that accompanied Carl Sagan’s awe-inspiring ’70s series, “Cosmos.’’

Space shuttles are obsolete, though, and only time will tell if anyone will want to keep dragging these songs around with their fingertips after the first test ride. Either way, our guide shoots for the stars and, even if the engines fail a few times on screen, it’s a worthwhile trip. “Have I too often now/ craving miracles?’’ she chides herself early on in “Thunderbolt,’’ though such concerns never got in the way of dreaming up this whole endeavor.

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Originally appeared in the Boston Globe here.

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