Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Raise Your Own Flag

Bjork - Hammersmith Apollo, 14th April 2008

Bjork’s Volta tour finally arrives in London with discussion focussing more on the singer’s recent political controversies than on her music (she dedicated the full throttle dance track ‘Declare Independence’ to Tibet whilst performing in China). These shows will no doubt refocus attention on her core achievement – a unique juxtaposition of musical artistry, audacious performance and colourful, provocative image. The Volta set-up may be her most interesting to date – focussed as much on pageantry and an unashamed celebration of physicality as on rich emotion. The stage is decorated with dazzling heraldry and her bizarre costume, topped off with brilliantly preposterous exploding puffball headgear, may turn out to be as iconic in its own way as the infamous swan dress.

The Volta touring band is one of her most intriguing musical constructions too. It’s a world away from the intimate combination of quietly rustling electronics and Zeena Parkins’ harp that characterised ‘Vespertine’, but every bit as effective. Whereas that music delved deep into intimate, private territory, this is explosive, obtrusive and violently dramatic. The brilliant all-female Icelandic horn section add a full, sometimes extravagant timbre and help completely reinvent some of the older material aired tonight. Chris Corsano’s unconventional, sometimes barely audible drumming is frequently more textural than rhythmic and the peculiar touch-pad synthesisers, of which Bjork’s band appear to be leading pioneers, continue to provide mind-boggling visual as well as musical entertainment. Perhaps most surprising of all is the appearance on stage of a harpsichord, as far as I can recall only deployed on one song.

She focuses on the most primal, rhythmic material from ‘Volta’, mostly ignoring its more mysterious subtleties. This proves to be wise, as this selection of fresh material works very well in combination with reimagined choices from ‘Medulla’ and ‘Homogenic’. This creates a show with something approaching a narrative arc - it not only coheres but also has a strong sense of progression and development from start to finish. ‘Earth Intruders’ is a predictable opener, but its energy and chanting neatly summarise the physicality of this performance. It’s also the perfect introduction to her individualistic vocal style – often crossing bar lines and veering away from predictable phrasings. During the succeeding ‘Hunter’, giant streams explode behind her, leaving a trail that follows her as she marches across the stage. Even when delivering ballads, Bjork is a compelling physical presence on stage, hand movements following the templates dictated by her beatmasters, or gesturing the chord changes carried by her horn section. Although she avoids speaking too much, there’s a real sense of just how much Bjork enjoys performing.

Some special guests also help elevate this performance well beyond the ordinary. The fantastic Malian Kora player Toumani Diabate joins her for an eloquent rendition of ‘Hope’, proving himself every bit as virtuosic and dexterous as his reputation suggests. I found myself captivated by the alchemical connection between Diabate’s rapid flurries and the echoing cymbal pattering from Corsano. It’s a genuine privilege to witness this master exponent of such a unique and demanding instrument. There’s also an appearance from a towering, peculiarly dressed Antony Hegarty, who delivers a surprisingly subtle take on the circling, hypnotising ‘Dull Flame of Desire’, a remarkably unconventional duet. It starts with complete separation and gradually, intricately meshes together, as if two completely individual love stories are slowly intertwining. Both singers restrain their more intrusive tendencies, and the performance is powerful and moving as a result.

One of Bjork’s major concerns throughout her solo career has been constructing an elaborate synthesis of acoustic and electronic elements, whether through string arrangements, the manipulated vocal percussion of ‘Medulla’ or now the incorporation of a horn section. This allows her to perform versions of older material where the mood and feel of the songs are radically altered. The horns make an incisive, almost jarring impact on ‘The Pleasure Is All Mine’ and ‘Who Is It’, but earlier material undergoes a more subtle transformation. ‘Joga’ sounds richer and more melancholy with horns, ‘Unravel’ more devastating and desperate. The beautiful, haunting encore of ‘Anchor Song’, performed with only the horns for accompaniment, is another highlight, all the more so for being a less predictable song selection.

My only small niggle with this show is that it yet again focuses squarely on singles from ‘Post’ and ‘Homogenic’. The only concession to ‘Debut’ is the wonderful ‘Anchor Song’, but how appropriate and special it would have been to hear that wonderful celebration of sex that is ‘Big Time Sensuality’, rearranged to incorporate the horn section. Perhaps the ‘Vespertine’ material is simply too gentle and vulnerable for this setting, but I missed its paradoxical icy warmth and emotional insight.

The set ends at a real extreme – the end of ‘Hyperballad’ bursting into an excoriating blitz of harsh, pounding beats, and segueing into ‘Pluto’, one of her least accessible but most exciting songs. This intense, aggressive spirit is then revisited in the encore, Bjork ending her theatrical performance with ‘Declare Independence’. She avoids any particular dedication this time of course, but whilst the song sounds superficial on the surface, its message is universal, and is as good a way as any to sum up Bjork’s audacity and individuality. She had an image and presence that is entirely her own – and the exhortation to ‘raise your own flag’ could mean pretty much anything – nationalist celebration, gay anthem or simply a call to abandon concerns and submit to that most fundamental of rhythms – the four to the floor pulse. It’s hardly her most sophisticated work (certainly when compared with the brilliant asymmetrical military rhythms and stark dissonance of ‘Vertebrae by Vertebrae’), but it’s somehow an appropriate way to sign off – a joyous celebration of humanity.

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