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Album Review: Bjork – Biophilia [Nonesuch]

You’ve got to admire Bjork’s courage. She is consistently looking for new ways to innovate and challenge her fans, the same of which can’t be said about almost anybody else. Perhaps the closest and most recent example of forward-thinking technology mixed with music was when Damon Albarn composed an entire Gorillaz album, “The Fall”, on an iPad. Not much has been done since then, either due to lack of ambition or in more likely cases, lack of money by which to apply and use these new technologies. Music may be on an ever-increasing path towards digital distribution methods, but taking it beyond that realm is scary, unexplored territory for most. Bjork wallows in the scary and unexplored though. That not only goes for her eccentric outfit choices, but everything in and around her music too. Back in 2008 and essentially just before the start of the “3D craze”, Bjork released a 3D music video for her track “Wanderlust” off her last record “Volta”. That was highly interesting in itself. Now in 2011, she’s once again trying something innovative. You can get her new record “Biophilia” through traditional means such as CD, vinyl and mp3, but if you’re more adventurous you can pick up an iPad application that features interactive digital elements for each individual track. If you’re wealthy, there was also a super-fancy “Ultimate Art Edition” of the record that you could have ordered (it’s no longer available for sale) that featured an lacquered and silkscreened oak box filled with 2 discs of music, a 48-page cloth-covered book with thread-sewn pages, and 10 chrome-plated tuning forks that are each adjusted to the tone of a track off the album. That bad boy would have run you $800 if you so desired to spend it, and it was yet another way to explore the unique world that Bjork has created around herself.

For all the intricate and forward-thinking ways you can engage with “Biophilia”, it’s all no good if the music is crap. With so much energy being put into developing iPad apps or special colored tuning forks, have the songs lost their top priority in this arrangement? Or as a counterpoint, does the creation of an entire universe around a record deepen and enhance what’s already there? Admirable as her past efforts have been, Bjork hasn’t had an especially great record since “Vespertine” ten years ago, and there’s a certain sense that while the way she distributes her music is ever-changing, the songs themselves aren’t. The titles themselves tell you a lot of what you need to know, most of them single-word environmental elements such as “Moon” or “Thunderbolt” or “Virus”. Yes, the lyrics keep that same thread going, casting broad strokes to match the broad concepts. “To risk all/is the end all/and the beginning all,” she sings on opening track “Moon”. What exactly it means is for you to figure out. She makes more sense on “Cosmonogy”, telling the many different stories about how the universe came into existence, from the Big Bang to God emerging from a black egg. At least she uses some of the Earth and space motifs as metaphors for more relatable things such as life and love and intimacy. Destructive as “Virus” may be, it’s ultimately a love song seeking connection. “Like a virus needs a body/As soft tissue feeds on blood/Someday I’ll find you/The urge is here”, she sings amid the music box melody. The hope is simply to avoid becoming completely devoured as she “feed(s) inside you”. Meanwhile “Mutual Core” takes the movement of tectonic plates, those that are responsible for the global shifting of countries as well as disasters such as earthquakes and volcano eruptions, and tries to push two people into an emotional Pangaea. We can shift our own plates around to try and clear a space to our hearts to link up with another, but we all have personal volcanoes that erupt from time to time, and those can do serious damage to two bodies linked by one core. Not everything on “Biophilia” is blatant symbolism for something else, but the tracks that do push that angle tend to be better off than the ones that don’t.

Lyrics aside, the backing instrumentals on “Biophilia” have their own issues as well. There’s plenty of engaging moments, such as the super repetitive and naturally addictive single “Crystalline”, which starts off delicately enough with some innocent chimes but eventually descends into a heavy drum’n’bass rhythm in the final minute that’s simply killer. The mellotron on “Mutual Core” keeps the track firmly grounded, until the volcano eruptions occur, at which point the pace and tension builds as some gritty electro beats explode outwards and upwards before it all settles down once again. Twists and turns like that help to make the song one of the finest moments on the record. And though it fails to push into another gear, the customized gravity harps that populate “Moon” create the right atmosphere even as the lyrics are something of a failure. After a remarkably interesting start to the record however, there’s a certain stagnation that begins to permeate most everything from “Dark Matter” onwards. There’s organ and strings and a number of electronic beats that show up on “Hollow”, but the whole time it just drifts along completely formless and seemingly unaware of where its headed or when it might stop. A number of things were thrown at a wall in the hopes something would stick, but ultimately nothing did. For tracks like “Sacrifice” and “Thunderbolt”, it feels like a basic melody was created and then held for most of the duration, leaving Bjork’s vocals to do any sort of heavy lifting. She’s more than capable of hitting whatever notes she likes with those incredible vocal chords, but there are moments where it feels like she’s trying too hard to make a song more engaging by showing off that range. The more organic she can make it feel, the better.

If you’re paying attention to Bjork only for her music, “Biophilia” is yet another in her string of releases these last several years that doesn’t quite deliver on the excitement of her earlier records. Technology junkies willing to fork over the $10 for an album’s worth of iPad apps may enjoy this record quite a bit more thanks to the interactive element, because playing around with lightning bolts and colorful balls carries a certain degree of satisfaction along with it too. The whole thing is very well put together and is visually gorgeous as well, akin to many of Bjork’s music videos. Keeping the songs and the apps together places limits on the ease of which you can hear the music, which we may need to remind ourselves comes first and foremost. Actually she may also need to remind herself that the music comes first and foremost. Yet it remains a challenge to separate Bjork the person, all of her visually striking costumes and futuristic ways of applying her music to new formats, from the songs she creates. If she were to strip away all the dazzling bits from her persona and were to simply release a record like any other artist, might that be the spark she requires to get her songwriting and composing mojo back? There’s only one way to find out, and unfortunately there’s no app that can do it for her.

Buy “Biophilia” from Amazon
Buy the Biophilia app from iTunes

Album Review: Gorillaz – The Fall [EMI]

Without a doubt, the hot gadget for 2010 was the iPad. Apple seems to have a monopoly lately on must-own items, and many a person will testify to the high quality and innovation the company consistently strives toward. Good for them, they’re probably doing more good than harm with their products, even if a tablet computer such as an iPad doesn’t have the processing power of your average laptop and has a tendency to break if you drop it from a countertop. Those things are inconsequential, because it’s cool, and the apps created for it allow you to do cool things. Case in point, whilst on tour in North America for 32 days this past fall, Damon Albarn wrote and composed 15 new Gorillaz songs using his iPad as the primary tool and musical instrument for the entire thing. It’s an impressive feat in and of itself, particularly because it sounds as good as a record made the traditional way, in a studio with industry standards such as ProTools or GarageBand. Released this past Christmas Day as a free download for fan club members ONLY (it only costs…$45 for a year’s subscription), “The Fall” is the official title of this iPad-made album. It may not boast the extensive list of guest stars and dramatic orchestral moments, but it remains a Gorillaz album through and through, with plenty of electro-pop style, found sound samples, and anchored by Albarn’s vocals.

Going purely by the song titles, you can tell that “The Fall” was a record composed on a journey across America. Over half the titles reference cities or states, and according to the album liner notes they were all recorded in those locations (see: “Shy-Town” in Chicago, “Amarillo” in Amarillo, etc). It’s not fair to say the actual music embodies the spirits of each city in which they were recorded, but that might be a product of how Damon Albarn views them anyways. If that’s the case, either the weather turning colder or perhaps road weariness may have affected Albarn’s mood as this isn’t the most upbeat Gorillaz record by any means. It’s often slow and lacks some of the pop edge that’s generated the cartoon band’s singles these past few years. The lack of any hip hop on this album is also an issue, though to be completely fair it’s not like you can get all your rap buddies to come out and record something with you as you tour around the country. In place of much of that are various natural sound samples that were recorded in locations around the country, from flipping around Texas radio stations to a forest and stream in Santa Fe to a loudspeaker announcement at an Los Angeles train station. Hell, the last track, “Seattle Yodel” is just a store-bought “yodeling pickle” (which you can buy online as well) held up to a microphone. At the very least these natural sounds make for something different outside of the iPad-crafted beats and the actual instruments that do pop up very infrequently. It’s definitely enough to leave you wondering whether you can call this even a legitimate Gorillaz album if Albarn is virtually the only person composing most of these songs.

While “The Fall” may have its issues, it may also be a little unfair to judge it harshly. First off, the method of distribution exclusively via the band’s fan club seems to suggest that this wasn’t intended to be heard by the masses or in the hope of spawning a radio hit. The only way non-fan club members can get their hands on this record is either by streaming it via the band’s website or pirating a copy. Secondly, writing and recording such an album over 32 days while in the middle of a tour that offers loads of distractions isn’t the way that 98% of bands operate, mostly out of fear what they come up with will be a crap product. Thirdly, to limit yourself and to base an entire record on what you can do with a bunch of iPad applications and a couple instruments is a challenge and a half in and of itself. The liner notes list all 20 iPad applications, along with the couple of actual instruments used to create everything you hear on “The Fall”, to the point where you could make this whole record over on your own should you be so inspired. That nobody has put out a legitimate iPad-recorded album prior to now really also shows how forward-thinking and brilliant Damon Albarn really is. While you were busy playing the latest edition of “Angry Birds” he was writing and composing music. Were he to allow himself more time and resources you can probably assume this record would have been a lot better and a lot more upbeat/fun. Eh, that’s probably the plan for the next, fully legitimate release from the band. So instead of being great “The Fall” is merely good, though better than might otherwise be expected. It’s not worth paying for a fan club membership just to own it, but if you really love Gorillaz and want to take advantage of more than just this exclusive music (a lithograph, webstore discount, ticket presales, streaming live videos, etc), perhaps the Sub Division is for you.

Join the Gorillaz fan club Sub Division and get a free download of “The Fall”

Stream “The Fall” at the official Gorillaz website

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