Björk, August 2, Spandauer Zitadelle, Berlin
“Are you guys ok with this?” asked Björk’s recent collaborator Arca, gesturing towards his visual accompaniment. The gigantic screen behind him showed masses of slaughtered whales floating in their own blood and offal, strange canned applause melding uncomfortably with his shuddering, alien music. The audience was repulsed, and while this was his likely intention, it leant a surreal atmosphere to the proceedings as the crowd began to heckle and yell for him to get off stage. “Mein Gott,” spat the man beside me, turning away from the screens in disgust. For a large percentage of the crowd, this was too much to deal with after standing for hours waiting for Iceland’s avant-pop queen to work her magic.
I was one of decidedly few in the crowd who really enjoyed Arca’s set. Björk has long played with the grotesque, and has dealt graphically with the visceral horror of whaling in the film she made with ex-husband Matthew Barney, Drawing Restraint #9, so Arca’s projections felt less like a support act and more like a genuine part of her event. Musically, it was sublime. Arca’s hypnotic music quivered like jelly, processed vocals and aquatic pulses creating a curious, undulating presence in the air. He was heckled throughout his set by the offended and impatient crowd, and one can easily imagine Björk revelling in the absurdity of the situation and the strident reaction he elicited.
When it was finally time for the main event, a troupe of string players strode onstage clutching their instruments, flanked to the rear by UK producer The Haxan Cloak with his computer and Manu Delago with his nest of electronic drums. Björk emerged wearing a sparkly crimson outfit with a characteristically strange purple headpiece, embroidered crustaceans adorning her face as though she’d been sitting underwater for the days leading up to the event. She launched into a salvo of tracks from her wounded opus Vulnicura, the emotional intensity painfully apparent on her face as she poured out her heart before us.
Like Peter Gabriel before her, Björk uses her art as catharsis, as a way of coming to terms with the difficulties of being a fragile creature in a world filled with pain and torment. Her new material is bleeding and raw, exploring the breakdown of her marriage and her descent into the darkness that followed. The near ten-minute ‘Black Lake’ was particularly harrowing, for both performer and audience. This was not mere entertainment – this was therapy. She rounded out the initial cluster of recent material with an aggressive rending of ‘Notget’, blasts of fire from the stage punctuating the thrashing beats as she exorcised her anger at being betrayed.
Many familiar songs followed, much to the audience’s delight. There were cuts from Homogenic, from Medúlla, from Volta and from Post, but sadly, nothing from her delicate masterpiece Vespertine. Nonetheless, one could hardly have walked away feeling that there was anything missing. From the punishing grind of industrial powerhouse ‘Army of Me’ to the swooping drama of ‘Bachelorette’, Björk ensured that all bases were covered.
The set she delivered for Berlin was not only the longest show of the tour but also one of the very last, as she cancelled all but one of her remaining appearances in the days that followed and announced unexpectedly that the Vulnicura era was over. How privileged we were to share so powerful a moment with one of the greatest musical artists of the modern era… The feeling will live on inside all but the most cynical of attendees, a moment of warmth and vulnerable humanity, cleansing and life-affirming both.
By Greg Reason