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Posted on October 13th, 2011 (1:31 pm) by Trevor Read

Four years after the release of Volta, Björk returns to once again set the bar for musical and artistic progressivism.

Biophilia, the Icelandic songstress’s eighth studio album, is more than a simple collection of new material. Rather, it’s the dazzling centerpiece in an ambitious multimedia storm cloud. In addition to a stunning live show replete with experimental non-instruments (including Tesla coils and bass-playing pendulums), Biophilia spawned a provocative App suite featuring games and other interactive elements designed to enhance each of its ten songs (Björk hopes to use these Apps, in conjunction with the album, to encourage young listeners to rethink and re-imagine how music is created).

It’s hard to deny the conceptual brilliance of Biophilia. In an effort to reconcile human experience through an exploration of the scientific and natural worlds, each song is inspired by natural phenomena. Appropriately, the often-simple lyrics are thick with metaphor. Björk compares transitive affections to tectonic shifts (“Mutual Core”) and examines lineage via ancestral DNA (“Hollow”). Some songs are more literal: “Cosmogony” elegantly details a series of competing creation myths. Not all of Björk’s writing is so lucid, but this tends to add to her eccentric charm.

These themes aren’t new to Björk’s repertoire: she’s been ruminating on nature and “Human Behaviour” for the better part of 20 years. What sets Biophilia apart from its predecessors is the way in which its songs intuitively reflect their namesakes. The spindly harp melody and subtle movements of “Moon” represent the passage of lunar cycles. The tacit pauses in “Thunderbolt” mimic the natural dead space between peals of thunder and lightning, while the song’s synth arpeggios form bolt-shaped musical notations. This incredible attention to detail adds depth to Biophilia; its conceptual properties bolstered by detailed compositions intuitively recreating natural events.

If it all sounds pretty highbrow, well...it is. Biophilia is easily the most avant-garde of Björk’s offerings and, by extension, probably the least accessible. Having largely done away with the fluid techno-pop (“Hyperballad”) and swelling string ensembles (“Bachelorette”) of her earlier work, Biophilia leans heavily on jangling noise-makers, twisting vocal harmonies, and unorthodox time signatures.

Most of the songs are structured around a single instrument. It’s an idiosyncratic orchestra: harps for “Moon”, kotos for “Solstice”, tubular bells for “Sacrifice,” a dread-inducing calliope for “Hollow,” and a spritely gameleste (a custom-made gamelan/celesta hybrid) shared by “Virus” and banner single, “Crystalline”. These traditional pieces are interspersed with crushing dub beat-breaks (as in “Mutual Core” and “Sacrifice”), but they most often take center stage alongside Björk’s strident vocals. The effect is nothing short of arresting.

Biolphilia is a multifaceted gem, but it isn’t flawless. With few traditional song structures on display--“Crystalline” and “Cosmogony” are the rare exceptions--many of the tracks appear to wander without a sense of direction. It’s clear that Björk’s vision is at play here, but deciphering these songs might pose too great a challenge for casual listeners. The album hits a stumbling block with “Dark Matter”, a caustic piece filled with dissonant, droning organs and incomprehensible gibberish. The effect is tense and claustrophobic, eerily reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s pervasive monolith. The song “Hollow” doesn’t fare much better. Despite their conceptual strengths, these tracks don’t offer much entertainment or joy.

Luckily, these minor discretions don’t do much to mar Björk’s grand experiment. Biophilia is a captivating piece of art-house musicology, stunning in its inventiveness and ambition. Björk has managed to remain highly relevant by continuously reinventing herself, metamorphosing over her long career from effervescent pixie to messianic avant-gardiste. Her latest opus holds the proof.

Track List
1. Moon
2. Thunderbolt
3. Crystalline
4. Cosmogony
5. Dark Matter
6. Hollow
7. Virus
8. Sacrifice
9. Mutual Core
10. Solstice

Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

80 / 100
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