As the Manchester International Festival (MIF) comes to a close, we folks at the Manchester Culture Show present some of our highlight reviews from this year’s eclectic programme, starting with a review of Björk’s performance at the Castlefield arena:
I became hooked on Björk’s music quite late in my teens. It was August 2001 and I remember discovering a 9 track sample CD in The Sunday Times with CD-Rom content to promote Björk’s album Vespertine. I still have that sampler, a reminder of my own personal moment of a discovery that I am delighted to write about here 14 years later in the form of a live concert review.
On Sunday 5th July Björk took to the Manchester Castlefield arena, a unique open-air performance that featured as part of this year’s refined Manchester International Festival programme. Björk previously took part in the MIF programme in 2011 with her Biophillia residency. This was also the first of her European Vulnicura tour dates, a one- off for Manchester audiences that could not be missed, especially as it was also placed a month before the much-anticipated headline performance at Wilderness Festival, August 6-9th 2015.
The support for Björk’s Manchester’s tour date was provided by one of the collaborators of Vulnicura, known as Arca (@arca1000000). Of course the Venezuelan producer, consultant, mixing engineer and DJ’s name often appears in regards to his producing and writing credits, so it was refreshing to see him mixing and providing a wide range of vocal techniques as a supporting artist for the concert. He was also joined by Jesse Kanda, (@jessekanda) a collobrator of Arca and visual producer who created the visual displays for the concert. These displays were coupled with Arca’s dancing which he performed in fetish gear and moved in an imitative fashion to the visuals on screen that often featured the a digitally-rendered, gender-ambiguous character. The support provided a set of hybrid RnB tracks, deviating from the conventional challenging listener with a blend of idiosyncratic electronic hip hop. Most of the sets tracks feature on Arca’s November 2014 debut release Xen, and included the tracks Thievery, Sad Bitch and album title track Xen. The audience may not have known who Arca was when he came on stage, but they won’t forget this unique artist with his powerful Spanish rapping in a hurry.
Half an hour after the support act had left the stage, London’s Heritage Orchestra entered, dressed
all in white the fifteen piece string orchestra tuned and prepared the audience for the lush and bountifully rich live orchestration that would be delivered during the night’s performance. Vulnicura’s second album collaborator producer The Haxan Cloak (@haxan_cloak, also known as Bobby Krlic) placed himself firmly behind the electronic set up for the evening, also joined by Björk concert resident hang drum and percussion performer Manu Delago (@manudelagomusic).
Björk entered the stage with such energetic, playful strides, positioning herself on the stage so poetically as the cellos led with the opening bass notes of Stonemilker, and the enigmatic voice was released. From this opening track the Icelandic songbird took to the stage and enfolded us all in a very personal musical journey that revealed the heart melting yet startlingly direct core that is Vulnicura’s repertoire. Emotional truth was the direction for the first half of the concert with Lionsong following on from the opening track and then a personal favourite of mine Black Lake with its requiem-like strings that develop into a richer arrangement with Arca’s vocal patches and electronic percussive swells. Singing of family being ‘a mutual mission,’ the next track was The Haxan Cloak-produced track Family a powerful track of mourning and grief that utilises sustained strings as well as a disjunct, angular cello solo that seems to unravel out of control, giving way to delicate sustained upper strings that remain throughout the track fading at the end, representing something that though initially unravelled and out of control still can retain a certain grace of remembrance.
Of course Björk likes to mix things up with her arrangements and tracks Notget and Army of Me presented obvious and subtle remixing, in the case of the latter. The concert also provided some stunning visual accompaniment in the form of the big screen that showed the various music videos for those tracks that offered one, or in the case of those that didn’t, videos of the natural world. However, Hunter was delivered with colourful smoke cannons, as well as onstage pyrotechniques and for the final encore, fountains of fireworks were also released. Hunter marked the turn of the night’s performance into the back catalogue of Björk’s hits, returning to the string reverie of Quicksand and Mouth Mantra’s nightmarish instrumental setting later in the set. It was clear why a live string ensemble was at the heart of this concert. Track’s from her previous eight studio albums included Bachelorette, Possibly Maybe, which showcased Manu Delago’s hang playing, Where is the Line?, Army of Me, 5 Years, the heavy beat eruptions of Mutual Core and the powerfully built up home groove of Hyperballad, virtuosic with the added encore of fireworks that concluded the night.
Regardless of any Björk fan’s favourite album, the thing that really stood out with her performance for the Manchester International festival programme was her vocal delivery. Not once was she out of key, but the crisp perfect inflections and experimental virtuosity of her voice and lush rolling-Rrs enthralled as she delivered an explosive start to MIF. Teenage me would certainly have been impressed. I can only express my anticipation as to what the Icelandic songstress will deliver next and I feel confident we will see another enigmatic performance at MIF in years to come.