5 juillet 2015

Castlefield Arena - Manchester International Festival

Manchester, Royaume-Uni



Despite basing her show around heartbreak, Björk was clearly having fun, says Rob Hughes.

The last time Björk played the Manchester International Festival, she chose to unveil Biophilia, a concept piece that used a variety of odd musical contraptions to unite the realms of science, nature and technology. It was a highly ambitious work – perhaps overly so – that eventually involved a complex series of apps and media platforms. Four years on and the contrast could hardly have been greater. Björk was back in Manchester to give the first European performance of her latest creation, Vulnicura, which turns out to be one of pop music’s more traditional staples : a break-up album.

That said, Björk doesn’t do break-up like anyone else. She was joined onstage by members of hip young things the Heritage Orchestra, who’ve previously brought a thrilling dynamic to shows by Sparks, Anna Calvi and John Cale. Sunday night’s gig also saw her play with percussionist Manu Delago and electronica wizard Haxan Cloak. Then there was Björk herself, fabulously attired in a day-glo butterfly costume and mask. The mood, visually at least, was very much one of festivity.

Yet things took a while to get moving. One of the defining features of Vulnicura, aside from Björk’s often pained and dissolute lyrics (the result of a split with artist Matthew Barney), is the liberal use of strings to map the emotional journey from heartbreak to some kind of salvation. But for all the beauty of Stonemilker and the epic Black Lake – and they are very beautiful indeed – they’re not exactly the kind of songs to pump up a party. It wasn’t until Notget, with its nimble intro and flashing electronic pulse, artfully leading into waves of ecstatic release, that the crowd became animated. This was helped along by sudden bursts of fireworks at either side of the stage, and showers of sparks on it, sending out great billowing plumes of red and blue smoke.
From thereon in, Björk was clearly having fun. There was a big and very beaty Bachelorette (one of a handful of favourites from 1997’s Homogenic), a version of Possibly Maybe that began in avant-classical mode before surrendering to a thudding rhythm, plus an imperious Army of Me that seemed to worry the very floor.

This was a setlist that was diligently constructed, with non-Vulnicura tunes selected for their similar thematic weight and purpose. 5 Years was a prime example, with Björk investing its repeated lyrical barb – “You can’t handle love, baby” – with more restorative urgency each time. The song served as an ideal precursor to Quicksand, busying along to drill’n’bass, animated strings and its central tenet that life is ultimately a wonderful and very precious thing. Breaking up might be hard to do, but Björk proved that she’s capable of transmuting despair into a very singular form of rapture. Telegraph

Before Bjork even sets foot on stage it is already filled with bodies and colour. The orchestra members walk out to take their seats, each of them dressed head-to-toe in gleaming white. Behind them are two musicians, one on an electronic drum kit and the other, Bjork’s recent collaborator and co-producer the Haxan Cloak, responsible for beats and electronics.

She sprints out onto the stage dressed as a Day-Glo butterfly, her face mostly covered with a mask that resembles a traditional Mexican wrestler. She bounds and races around, greatly resembling the creature itself, all fluttering wings, moving wildly but gracefully.

Opening with “Stonemilker” the opening track from her most recent, and heart-breaking, record Vulnicura the tone is instantly sombre yet grand as the strings wail out in soaring unison, floating on top of an undercurrent of fractured, bass-driven, electronics and stark drums. Bjork’s voice sails through the air, delivering her most recent material with a mighty strength and force but also allowing the pain and anguish – of which said material was based on – to come bubbling to the surface, compellingly.

Striking visuals depict her heart being stitched back together again after clearly being ripped in half and there are plentiful moments throughout the night in which the personal pain this artist went through during her breakup are almost uncomfortably palpable. However, this doesn’t feel like a wallowing, more an expulsion, a gigantic exercise in release.

The relationship between the strings and the thumping electronics are both harmonious and fractious and they work all the better because of their opposing sonic traits. The tone can shift from refrained, plaintive tenderness to surging, engulfing electronica and does so frequently. Midway through the set fireworks begin to rocket into the sky from behind the stage, initially blue and then red, shooting off huge clouds of thick smoke that hang in the air, consuming all the on-looking balcony watchers in the neighbouring residential flats in the process. The crowd’s heads turn and a back and forth waving session ensues as Bjork too waves at the groups all cloaked in a thick red haze.

Older material is cherry picked alongside the more recent material, with a trilogy of “Where is the Line” “Army of Me” and “5 Years” creating a formidable highlight. “Army of Me”, despite its twenty-year plus age, still rattles and hums with vibrancy and sends the crowd into a frenzy. The encore is a ferocious and rave-like version of “Hyperballad”, which sounds as huge and thundering as the fireworks that take off and explode above the stage. All the while Bjork charges around as fireballs shoot out from the stage and intense strobe lights flicker intensely. It’s a set that pays homage to the eclectic nature of Bjork as an artist as a whole, it’s intensely visual and multi-sense stimulating whilst remaining consistently challenging and progressive musically. It’s all further proof that there really is nobody else like Bjork. Independent

Björk’s appearance at the Manchester international festival has a hint of deja vu. It’s only four years since she was a stone’s throw from this very venue, showcasing Biophilia, an avant garde experimental app-based dance album that explored the links between nature, music and technology.

However, the two shows could hardly be more different. In 2011, the audience circled the stage and the artist led a visual spectacular, wearing what looked like a shaggy dog on her head. This time, she’s performing the recent, acclaimed Vulnicura, a hugely intense affair that documents – in graphic detail – the breakdown of her relationship with the artist Matthew Barney.

It’s a much more stripped down performance, albeit with Björk walking on dressed like a DayGlo butterfly, complete with wings, and sporting a bulbous headdress that covers her face like a mask.

The contrast between her achingly personal words, and the film behind her of a more carefree Björk, on an Icelandic beach is moving, and yet, during the opening Stonemilker, her mood seems playful. There are cheers as the front rows glimpse a grin behind the mask. However, as the album progresses we’re drawn into its emotional whirlpool of sadness, despair and ultimately repair.

Vulnicura contains the sort of personal thoughts and details that few stars would confide to their psychiatrist, never mind perform to more than 5,000 people in an open-air urban amphitheatre. Her lyrics hit home like nails in the coffin of something that was precious. “Maybe he will come out of this loving me,” she muses, as doubt bleeds into fury. “I honoured my feelings. You betrayed your own heart,” she snaps in the bleakly devastating Black Lake, as percussionist Manu Delago drops what sound like sonic bombs. Startling imagery of the insect world adds to the sense of something unusually intimate.

Hurt-filled confessionals about family abandonment could easily fall flat in front of standing evening drinkers, but the white-clad Heritage Orchestra keep the energy levels up as the sumptuous, complex arrangements shift from classical serenity to Psycho-like violin intensity, over the pulverising electronic sub-bass energy of a club.

Either because such songs are emotionally draining, or because she’s canny enough to recognise the limits of audience concentration, she also delves into her back catalogue. Oldies such as Possibly Maybe, Wanderlust and a lovely Hyperballad are given dramatic new arrangements before she returns to ­Vulnicura to triumphantly declare : “When I’m broken, I am complete.”

It’s a concert that demands attention, but delivers magic, fireworks and humanity, summed up when rocketing plumes of coloured smoke erupt behind the stage, and the emotionally unburdening superstar finds herself cheerily waving at a group watching from a nearby balcony who have comically ­disappeared under a cloud of smoke. Guardian


sur scène

  • Manu Delago
  • The Haxan Cloak
  • The Heritage Orchestra


habillée par

  • James Merry
  • Nikoline Liv Andersen


  • Andrew Thomas Huang
  • Encyclopedia Pictura
  • Inez+Vinoodh


  • Carsten Windhorst