When most musicians wish to return to nature, they follow a fairly standard procedure. This typically involves isolation in a forest, newfound respect for acoustic instruments and perhaps some yoga or gardening. In Björk’s latest tribute to nature, however, her most vital instrument is an iPad.
One Little Indian
Never one to follow the traditional course of action in any aspect of her life, the Icelandic artist has put out an album, Biophilia, which is likely to be considered a pioneer in the history of music. Björk explained in an interview with The Guardian that she has created the first “app album” ever. Apple devotees can interact with each song in an app with the same name involving musical visualization, lyrics, essays, scores and games in which users can contribute to songs.
Björk, also an environmental activist, relayed to Stereogum that she had intended for the title of her project to mean “nature-like” or “morphing into nature.” How contradictory, then, that an album that places so much emphasis on nature is meant to be experienced while staring at (or playing with) a screen.
To experience Biophilia without utilizing every aspect of the project would be unfair, but that’s not to say the actual music of the album is secondary to the apps on an i-whatever. Looking beyond the technological innovations, does Biophilia actually sound “good?” The answer to that question varies largely based on the degree of listener open-mindedness. While most of the melodies of Biophilia are starkly uncomplicated, they are more than compensated with the layers of added elements that crystallize and grow.
The album’s opener is a paradigm of the deceptive minimalism of the album’s melodies. Aptly named “Cosmogony,” the song begins with Björk speculating about the origin of the universe. Her proposed explanations are admittedly lame — an empty sea, a cold black egg, a silver fox. She even mentions the Big Bang — say, that’s not innovative at all! Björk attempts to comment on particularly mind-blowing topics like the genesis of life, but the simplicity of her lyrics verge on triteness. Thankfully, the raw aesthetics of the song make up for any lack of awe-inspiring cogitation. An ethereal chorus opens the song, later accompanying musings about Heaven. The song ends in an echoing deterioration that is absolutely otherworldly, even by Björk’s standards.
“Crystalline” hops along with a series of pings created from a computer-generated hybrid instrument called a “gameleste,” eventually concluding with a frenzied barrage of glitches with a beat that bears a strange resemblance to Aphex Twin. The final track, “Virus,” begins with an invitingly mysterious xylophone-like tune that prefaces a poetic catalogue of metaphors on parasites. Intermingled throughout these comparisons, Björk oohs softly, creating a sway-worthy melody. Both of these are singles from the album, unsurprising given they have distinct melodies more likely to appeal to the public. An iPad app and extensive background knowledge aren’t necessary to enjoy (and maybe even dance to) “Crystalline.”
But while these supplements may enhance the music, Björk made sure to maintain basic auditory appeal in order to prevent Biophilia from becoming another sleepy concept album with overlooked messages.
The instrumentation of the album serves as a revolutionary concept in itself. In “Thunderbolt,” Björk introduces a determined bassline that churns rhythmically while she sings about “craving miracles.” The synthesizer that creates this bassline is a Tesla coil, remarkably appropriate considering the device actually uses lightning as a synthesizer. No, really, YouTube it. If that isn’t freaky enough, the beat created by the Tesla coil in “Thunderbolt” actually mimics the time lapse between lightning and thunder.
In “Solstice,” Björk employs pendulums as additional unorthodox instrumentation, using them to mimic the Earth’s rotation in harp form. It’s a fascinating concept, but the harp is unfortunately less funky than the Tesla coil’s pulsations and becomes repetitive after a few minutes.
Björk stressed to online magazine The Quietus that “we have to work with nature, whether we like it or not,” likening her music to the creation of crystals, DNA and viruses. But how does Björk create such environmentally minded music? She chirped in with the unintentionally comic answer that it is “really easy to do on an iPad.” Biophilia then may be considered an enigma — an organic masterpiece that happens to be created in an age of an increasing love of technology.