Review Summary: A surprising version of Vulnicura, making it even heavier than the original.
I love beats, I love electronics, I love how they can add up with real instruments to create a marvelous symbiosis. Vulnicura
, Björk's 2015 album about heartbreak is one of the greatest examples out there of this symbiosis. The beats and classical strings work together to make a fractured, beaten-up and broken whole.
So, naturally, when Vulnicura Strings
was announced, I greeted it with a lot of skepticism. Why remove one of two elements from this perfect symbiosis. 'Lionsong' was put online, and I wasn't convinced, still. The vocals and arrangements are the same, with a solo added here and there, so it initially felt a bit like a spare product.
But, when I went and bought the album (being a completist and all), I noticed right on the first track, 'Mouth Mantra', that it was nothing of that kind. The structure of the songs is different, because with only strings, the heavy points may lie elsewhere than on the original. The brooding, complex arrangement of vocals and strings felt less cluttered than the original of this track, and put new light on the harmony, climaxing rather in words than in sheer volume as it did in the original.
'Lionsong', also, is a different organism entirely than its Vulnicura
version. Less playful, more solemn. Heavier. It broods and envelops the melody which makes it less a sing-&-move-along than the original. The same goes for 'Black Lake', which is what you'd expect: more static, more painful, more stinging. In its strings incarnation, it feels more like an elegy than the accusation the original beats added to it, which tore sentences like 'You have nothing to give' apart in a climactic way. Here, the pain feels more internal than external, not said to a 'you', but resonating inside.
Also, the deletion of the beats make sentences like 'I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions' sound less arrhythmic, not bound to a grid, but interacting with the string arrangement. The space that this version gives to a song like 'Stonemilker', too, is beautiful: it allows the song and the lyric to breathe and be quietly elegiac. The counterpoint in that song gets center stage, and makes this an admirable take on a song that was pure brilliance.
'Atom Dance' is even weirder in this version, adding a viola organista (a Da Vinci-designed instrument) to its tickering pizzicati, which to me sounds a bit questionable because it breaks the vulnerability of those sounds and fattens them up massively. Still, 'Atom Dance' functions differently in this version: the exultant joy of the song retains more of the pain from the other songs, instead of the lightness the skittering beats brought in. Also, some of Antony's vocal takes have been altered and the song climaxes into a very fat, and very heavy climax. Another song that takes on more pain is 'Quicksand', which doesn't sound as much as a light at the end of the tunnel here. It still is reaffirming the identity of its protagonist, but in a more solemn way.
'Notget' is brilliant in this version: abrasive, harsh and emptier, once again altering the climaxes in the song. 'Family', with no vocal, puts all effort in building these climaxes, from the microtonal start which metastases into ever more penetrating territory, ruptured by a solo that was done by a cello in the original, by the viola organista in this version. This part feels less climactic and less off-putting here, which is a shame, but upon arriving at the end of the song sans-electronics made me realize that, once more, there is little light at the end of the tunnel, just a slight change of mood. It adds up to a beautiful piece of dark ambient.
The final song, the Viola Organista version of 'Black Lake', shouldn't work, but does. Without any vocals, the extremely big, droney, weird sound of this instrument, makes it a very heavy closer. The pauses in this solo version without extended techniques make you focus entirely on the overtone structure of the instrument, which is off-putting and kind of brilliant. It's more angular, less floating than the original.
So, this is a pretty brilliant undertaking, in that it sheds a different light on the songs. There are some problems though, mostly in the mixing. It's all very, very loud. The recordings used are from contact microphones, which reduces the ensemble sound heard in the original and replaces it by a wooden, harsh string sound, which is daring even by contemporary classical standards. Maybe the recording should have been mixed with the ambient recording a bit to reduce the clutter of 15 of such individual recordings. Also, sometimes the vocal gets subsumed by the strings, and sometimes the strings duck too much once a vocal enters. These mixing issues make the album hard to listen to on headphones, because the sound is continuously so big. Funnily enough, the electronics actually added some more timbral diversity to the whole.
So, all in all, this is an excellent version of Vulnicura
, but it lacks the beautiful symbiosis heard on the original.