Your humble narrator is being dragged kicking and screaming into a future of iPhones and whatnot, both by being married to a loyal Apple convert and the innovations of the music industry. Though Rocks Off still tracks down local acts and releases the old-fashioned way - online concert listings and Facebook pages - more and more our knowledge of great new national music comes from suggestions sent to the Wife With One F's iTunes account.
Said formula noticed, for instance, a library full of Bjork albums, and asked if she would be interested in a multi-media musical experience designed to mesh perfectly with her new album, Biophilia, due out this September.
"Doesn't your boss like tech stuff like this?" she asked
"I do like tech stuff like that!" he told us a short time later via email. "Get your keister on it right now or clean out your desk!" [Ed. Note: This is somewhat... exaggerated.]
So with our job on the line [Ed Note: Again...], we descended into Bjork's madness once again. Downloading the app for Biophilia itself is free, though the app is little more than a half-galactic, half-fractal menu screen that can be manipulated. Each song on the upcoming album is linked to a specific star, though currently the only point of light that can be explored is for the lead single "Crystalline."
Venturing to "Crystalline" costs $1.99, which means that the full album experience will be $10.99 once all the apps have been released. Not too bad in the scheme of things, and a small price to pay for innovation and the end of a four-year Bjork drought since Volta.
First off, "Crystalline" itself is a wonderful composition. The song reminds us heavily of Bjork's innovative appearance on MTV's Unplugged, a set that utilized things like water glasses to replicate her distinctive music. It's a somewhat minimalist work that will not please those who know her only from "Human Behavior," but will engross anyone who is willing to travel the lengths of her stunning visions and aural frontiersmanship.
The app that comes with the song is highly innovative. You control an ever growing ball of crystals travelling down a hallway. Imagine if they had released Katamari for the Virtual Boy plus the trench run at the end of Star Wars, and you sort of get an idea of what playing the game is like. By tilting the iPhone, you collect crystals from the walls.
The purpose of this visually is to unlock different tunnels... something that, frankly, gets boring pretty fast. Kudos to Bjork for realizing that today's gamer is highly achievement-based, but as far as we can tell, unlocking different tunnels made only minor changes to the game play.
Aurally, the goal is different. Depending on the tunnels you take and the crystals you collect, a player basically gets to remix "Crystalline" themselves as they play. Each different path gives you a slightly different version of the song. It's basically the kind of thing Paul Fredric of Asmodeus X or Breye 7x of Provision would dream up after playing an emulation of 3-D WorldRunner.
The chance for a luddite to tackle manipulating Bjork's music is interesting, but also somewhat flawed. Playing the game involves listening to "Crystalline" over and over and over again, and while it is a great song, the harsh notes don't exactly trigger the rush of euphoria you get from listening to Erasure's "Always" while playing Robot Unicorn Attack. Rocks Off went about 10 rounds before putting it down.
As Bjork moves on to more and more experimental forms, her songs become less like songs and more like experiences, a move that we applaud and love. However, an experience is by definition something that isn't repeated endlessly. The last time we heard a song by Bjork poppy enough to bear through several cycles of was "Army of Me," and even that has gotten a little much since Hollywood decided that it is the only song that can be played in a female-led action movie.
Something like "Crystalline," you get to the end and go, "Wow! I've got to think about that one for a bit." It's a song like Cee-Lo Green's "Fuck You" that you decided to replay the minute it's over.
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What Bjork is doing, turning her music into a set of single, interactive experiences, is brilliant and beyond compare. Thus far, we're a little underwhelmed with the first release, but at just $1.99 a pop there is no reason not to continue across her little universe to wherever she leads us. In particular, we're looking forward to "Virus," which will feature a close-up study of a virus attacking cells.
For those without an app bent, the album and single will see conventional release as well. A music video for "Crystalline" directed by Bjork's collaborator on the project, acclaimed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind filmmaker Michel Gondry, will debut on YouTube next week.