Where Science Meets Sound | Bjork’s 7th album breathes new meaning into the physical world.

Bjork’s follow up to her highly experimental Volta would be her most ambitious project to date. Not only would Biophilia be a sonic experience, but also a visually interactive experience with a release of an app to go along with each of the album’s ten tracks. Originally working with National Geographic to create a 3D film to coincide with the project, over time this evolved into the application and album we have now:

First I was contacted by National Geographic, who were starting a record label and wanted me to be their first artist, which I immediately said yes to… they suggested we do a 3D movie, which I thought was a brilliant idea. I ended up meeting all sorts of directors and film producers, but at some point the project became so huge and expensive that I retreated in a way. I started doing a lot of the work on my own, really DIY. I moved to Puerto Rico for eight months with my sound engineer and that’s when I really started writing the songs for Biophilia. At first, I was using a cheap little organ, as well as some midi stuff I got off of eBay — cheap touchscreens and a couple of Nintendo game controllers. Eventually, sometime in 2010, it became clear the 3D film wasn’t going to get made…

The album focuses around many different natural elements: gravity, crystals, tectonic plates, dark matter, and viruses (to name a few). The innovation also found its way into how the music was created. The Gameleste (a celeste with midi integration to be played through an app) was created for the project and Tesla coils used to produce synth-like tones. It’s an otherworldly experience. If you are interested in the development of the apps, read the interview Bjork did with Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Moon” opens the album up. The song revolves around the changing of the lunar cycles. Compared to the openers on prior and post projects, this is the weakest. The harps play in a cycle, similar to that of the cycles of the moon. They build and add on each other to represent this phase change. It just feels a bit too empty. Lyrically, she brings in this mythical tone to stripping yourself of your fears and starting anew, “Best way to start-a-new/ Is to fail miserably/ Fail at loving and fail at giving/ Fail at creating a flow/ Then realign the whole/ And kick into the start hole.” There are moments of beauty as a swell of voices adds more depth. Overall, I find this track to be rather limp and not the thesis statement I’m used to from prior albums.

Thunderbolt” brings with it the unique sounds of the Tesla coil. The shock of this electricity is what brings back out Bjork’s creativity. The electrical pulses of the coil help to sell this rejuvenation she’s receiving, “All my body parts are one/ As lightning hits my spine/ Sparkling/ Prime runs through me/ Revive my wish/ I am inviolable.” In an interview on track, Nikki Dibben told Far Out this on how the arpeggios were created:

In the app, you can make your own arpeggios of electricity by changing their speed and pitch range. In the track, the arpeggio technique is most obvious in the bassline of the chorus (‘may I, Should I, or Have I too often craving miracles’). Each time the chorus returns the notes of the bassline stay the same (it’s always the ‘home’ chord — notated in the score as a B minor) but the range of the arpeggio and its speed changes.

The juxtaposition between the organ and tesla coils echo the distance between seeing lightning and hearing thunder. I love the concept and execution. Both the metaphor and reality of the song come together wonderfully.

Crystalline” really highlights the gameleste‘s brighter, metallic tones. It’s bright, nearly glockenspiel-esque tones blink like droplets of the very crystals she humbly sings about. The metaphor of crystal growth mirrors the growth past our own anxieties, “Rocks growing slowmo (listen how they grow)/ (Crystalline) I conquer claustrophobia (listen how they grow)/ (Crystalline) And demand the light (listen how they grow)/ It’s the sparkle you become/ Conquer the anxiety.” The dissonance the gameleste adds an interesting texture, but gets a bit repetitive over time. If it wasn’t for the beats and pauses, I think the song would get a bit mind numbing after a while. The ending breakdown is the best part of the track. I wish this energy was throughout the song more. I appreciate it’s bouncy, crystalline (no pun intended) sound, but never seem to revisit this track much.

Cosmogony” brings back in the horns from Volta in a masterful way. The opening choir lifts us up into the heavens while the brass section gently floats us through the gorgeous nebula Bjork has constructed. We’re at the most macro level here. She’s looking at creation myths of the universe.

That particular sound, ‘Cosmogony’, I guess after watching documentaries about string theory… the Big Bang theory felt like a creation myth that is 100 years old. Me and my friends, probably after a few glasses of something, were sort of thinking “I guess all creation myths at the time of their making were science”. I’ll bet the pharaohs thought pyramids and mummies were the future — that was pretty science fiction. 3000 years later it is just mythology and the creation myth. In this song you have 4 verses. The first verse is the American native creation myth, next verse is Sanskrit creation myth, the 3rd verse is Aboriginal creation myth and the 4th verse is Big Bang theory. But it is also tongue and cheek.

I really like it’s grand feeling. Out of all the tracks on the record, this was the first I gravitated to. Again, I feel like the concept and execution here melt together effortlessly.

Dark Matter” has the most dissonance to it. Bjork sings no real words, opting instead to weave an abstract web of language-like phrases throughout. As a nod to the abstract nature of dark matter itself (and how very little we know about it), the song is like transmission you can almost understand but are missing the necessary pieces to really get pulse on its true meaning. I love the concept behind it, but would rarely see myself consistently returning to the song. It’s a great avant-grande mood setter. A unique choir and organ version has also been released that gives off an sci-fi like tension seen in old Twilight Zone episodes.

Hollow” focuses on the micro world of DNA. Bjork seems to explore her ancestral connections all the way down to its DNA in order to find answers that have left her empty, “My ancestors have access/ Hollow/ I’m falling down the abyss/ Hollow/ Looking for some answers/ Generations of mothers sailing in/ Somehow they all were shipfolks.” The organ and choir have this warped feeling. It’s unsettling. I feel like I’m lost in this microcosm as it unwinds to something bigger. At first listen, it was a bit much to handle sonically. On second listening (especially the original extended version which I vastly prefer) it has begun to grow on me. I suggest the extended version over the album version. It has so much more tension that just builds and builds.

Much like the title suggests, “Virus” goes into the metaphor of viruses. The gameleste leans a bit more into the gamelan sound, metallic and warm. I notion of viruses and fungi are used to illustrate the perfect connection between two people, “The perfect match, you and I/ You fail to resist/ My crystalline charm/ Like a virus, patient hunter/ I’m waiting for you, I’m starving for you.” Compared to “Crystalline”, I really like mix of celesta and gamelan sounds here. It has much more variety and texture. The subtle beats and choir really adds so much dimension. I really like this inviting tone and weirdly loving exchange between these two characters. It’s a highlight on the album.

Sacrifice” takes inspiration from animal mating rituals, but clearly focuses more on the sacrifices of the women in these relationships. When asked about the song, Bjork stated:

…it is really the odd one out. A couple of years ago i spent 8 months in puerto rico… while i was there, 5 of my friends [couples] divorced. […] maybe because all the other songs are about elements, i guess i became an anthropologist and decided to write down in my book all the things that the girls were complaining about and all the things the guys were complaining about. […] …the girls were all complaining about very similar things. so i ended up picking out sentences that they all had in common and skipping what they had different. […] it is about complaining.

There’s a clear oppressive nature to these relationships, “When she, when she found your love/ Her nature bowed her head/ She surrendered/ She renounced the world for you/ Now she’s poisoned by demands/ You cannot answer.” The warbling tubular tones feel very ancient. It unleashes at certain moments into these static fueled frantic beats. It’s almost a release of frustration on the amount of sacrifices that the woman has given in this relationship. I really like the sound here. It just feels all encompassing sonically. For a song with no real chorus, she is able to keep you enthralled throughout.

Mutual Core” delves into the internal world of the self and the earth. The scientific nod here is inspired by Plate Tectonics. The mutual core Bjork sings about is the common ground between two people. This subduction, continental arrangement between them is her way to try and strengthen their relationship, “To counteract distance/ I know you gave it all/ Offered me harmony/ If things were done your way/ My Eurasian plate subsumed/ Forming a mutual core.” As someone with a geology background, I quite liked the little nod to the speed at which the Atlantic plates are diverging, “As fast as your fingernail grows/ The Atlantic ridge drifts.” I love this song the most out of all the songs on the album. There’s a building compression that echos the need to come together (like the earthen plates she sings about). It erupts volcanically cleverly at the song’s chorus, “This eruption undoes stagnation/You didn’t know that I had it in me…” The aggressive dub-step like breakdown against the crescendo of the choir feel like the belching of lava. It’s so good.

Solstice” is built on a poem written by long time collaborator and friend of Bjork, Sjón. On the subject of the poem, Bjork stated:

Sjón wrote this poem which I really, really love and it’s called “solstice”, chich is basically a Christmas carol, and it’s sort of about the fact that the four seasons are because of the tilt of the earth.

In order to capture the concept of gravity, Bjork had commissioned a pendulum-harp to play for the track. The plucked tones have this swaying feeling. Sjon’s words bring to mind that though the days maybe growing darker in the dawn of winter, you have the power to bring warmth and light to the world during this time: “And then you remember/ That you, yourself, you are a light-bearer, a light-bearer/ Receiving radiance from others/ Flickering sun-flame/ Unpolished Earth in palm of hand.” I don’t particularly connect with this track either. It’s so sparse that I don’t really feel epping change that is trying to be brought out here.

I love the concepts behind this album. You can still get access to the app on IOS and experience the tracks along with the visuals and activities. The album also includes the bonus track “Náttúra” (Nature) which was released in 2009. It’s a great chaotic song in Icelandic using outtakes of drums from “Earth Intruders”, I recommend giving it a listen. You’ll move along with it’s controled choas. I think there are really brilliant moments on this album, however there are some concepts that just fall a bit flat for me: “Moon”, “Crystalline”, and “Solstice”. She would go on to win a Grammy for the album’s packaging. One really neat limited release of the album included unique tuning forks that go along with each of the 10 songs. It very novel idea. I have to say I like, but don’t love the album. My favorite tracks:

  • Thunderbolt
  • Cosmogony
  • Virus
  • Sacrifice
  • Mutual Core

My overall rating: 6 out of 10. It’s an album that deserves a listen front to back at least once. I love the concepts and innovation so much, and think the live reinventions over older tracks during this album’s tour were amazing, I just don’t fully mesh with the songs like prior projects. We sort of end an era of experimentation, to begin a new era with the heartbreaking follow up Vulnicura.

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Z-sides: Music Reviews

Z-sides: Music Reviews

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Welcome to my personal blog. This is a place where I discuss any of my musical finds or faves. Drop in and have a listen.