A stagehand moving an iPad is maybe the funniest thing you’ll see at a rock show all year.
As far as I know, Björk hasn’t made an instantly hummable song since 120 Minutes went off the air. So now her life is, justifiably, the indieverse’s “important artist,” the 800-pound swan in the room, a dreamer and doer of grand gestures, a mix between Amelie and Terrence Malick who gets to vacillate between whimsical and batshit and genius and hilarious and goofy and awesome. The first night of her Biophilia residency at the New York Hall of Science was all of these things and I got to touch a Mars rock!
The whole Biophilia album, app and stage show is tethered to learning — Life‘s Sir David Attenborough provides narration, workshops for kids happen later in the week, geometric shapes show the patterns around us, an intro promises “nature, music, technology… listen, learn, create,” basically Ludwig von Drake gone Alexander McQueen. Naturally, Björk provided an outlet where the curious could show up early and poke around a museum, maybe explore a robotic sub’s interior, feel the heat of a mine wall, or see how much water is in your body (14.1 gallons for me), all while organ versions of Björk songs made for perfectly uneasy ambiance. Most of the exhibits went unloved, though, as people rushed inside to get a good spot.
(Photo: Julieta Cervantes)
Inside the museum’s grand hall, Björk had set up a stage in the center of the room, the deepest point away from it was about seven heads back. There was literally no bad place to stand, as she worked all corners of the room; everyone getting a different vantage point to all the gee-gaws, mousetraps and music-making steampunk whoosiwhatsits churning along on stage. Björk and her suit (which looked like it was made of four latex Smurf ears) obviously cut an arresting presence. But in such a unique location with a unique setup and unique instruments, it was hard for it not to feel like the machines and doo-dads weren’t battlebotting themselves into being the real stars. And they were indeed cool: A tesla coil lowered in a giant birdcage generated a bigger robo-scuzz boltnoise than the Skrillex show downtown, her “gravity harp” of four giant metronomes plucked mesmerizingly like the world’s biggest office toy, drummer Manu Delagu played some sort of space pod that worked like a steel-pan turned inside out, Björk whacked an noise-making iPad with a four-finger slam like she was playing the best game of Simon.
Add a 20-person, all-female choir in space robes and it was less like watching a concert and more like going to Bowie’s EPCOT. That’s obviously a huge compliment, but since the toys were so grand, the enormous chunks of the show not driven by technological ingenuity and funky synesthasia seemed to drag in comparison. The Biophilia tunes on their own (and she played 90 percent of them) sound mostly like 90s IDM attached to the disjunctive melodies that Dirty Projectors have been trying to cop for years, with Björk’s singing about mushrooms and technotic plates with a delivery as chilly as a scientist’s. But at least sometimes we’d get cool videos of some starfish holding hands (holding points?), and whenever the choir would rrrrrrush into a crescendo, it would instantly overpower nature and machine in the best way humanly possible.
(Photo: Julieta Cervantes)