the 5 best bits of björk at manchester international festival
The Icelandic audio-visual innovator returned to Manchester for a sell-out gig in the open air at Castlefield Arena.
Photography Carsten Windhorst
Manchester International Festival is special in many ways and over the past decade it has really made its mark on the cultural landscape, not just of the north, but of the UK and even the world, as the first festival of newly-commissioned original work. However, if there is one musical performance in the festival's 10-year history that really put MiF on the map, it was the world exclusive of Björk's Biophilia tour in 2011, an audio-visual spectacular that brought together art and science to create something as surprising as it was beautiful.
Björk returned to the festival with a very different album this year. Vulnicura is quieter and more reflective, tracing the collapse of her relationship with artist Matthew Barney, and detailing heartbreak and despair, but also healing. Björk performed tracks from the album, as well as old favourites like Army of Me, at the open-air Castlefield Arena in central Manchester, supported by Arca, who produced Vulnicura. Here are our 5 best bits...
1. Björk as goth-moth
Björk is known for her spectacular stage (and off-stage) costumes, and this performance was no exception. The petite Icelandic performer took to the stage wearing a feathery, furry black mini-dress with neon yellow and pink highlights, which had huge shoulders that extended in nodules like an alien moth. The dress, by Danish designer Nikoline Liv Andersen, was complemented by an intricately embroidered face mask by James Merry, who i-D recently spoke to.
2. Family live
Family is one of the most heart-wrenching tracks on Björk's break-up album Vulnicura, with the opening lines, "Is there a place; Where I can pay respects; For the death of my family". Touching on heartbreak and mourning, but also healing, the song is incredibly powerful live, enhanced by the extraordinary video (or "moving album cover") directed by Andrew Thomas Huang, featuring the mask by James Merry, where Björk symbolically sews her broken heart back together.
3. Setting the night on fire
If the sonic fireworks (that caught the ears of passengers on passing trams) weren't enough, then Björk also threw in literally fireworks during Hunter. Huge smoke cannons exploded over the roof of the stage, engulfing people watching from (otherwise perfectly positioned) nearby balconies in clouds of pink smoke. There were also sparkling fountain fireworks inside the stage, as well as fire-balls and a huge display as Björk played Hyperballad to close the show.
4. The band
Björk performed with a live 15-piece orchestra, the Heritage orchestra from London, who are on tour with her around Europe; they are a pop culture orchestra, having performed live with acts including Anna Calvi and Goldie. Also on stage was Manu Delago, who plays the Hang, a UFO-shaped steelpan-style instrument that really came to the fore during Possibly Maybe; and producer The Haxan Cloak (Bobby Krlic), a local lad from Wakefield who takes a production credit on Björk's album for Family.
5. Arca and Jesse Kanda
The surprise special guests were Vulnicura producer Arca and visual artist Jesse Kanda, who had performed their own sell-out show in Manchester the previous night.
Some of Arca's intricate soundscapes were lost on the massive Björk crowd, who talked over several of his earlier songs, but by the time he stepped out from behind the decks to dance sultrily in front of Jesse Kanda's spectacular visuals wearing a HBA apron and platform boots, they took notice; and after his intense Spanish rap, apparently a political song about Hugo Chavez, the whole crowd clapped and cheered as if they'd never seen anything like it. Chances are, they hadn't.
Text Charlotte Gush
Photography Carsten Windhorst