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Bjork

+ {Tappi Tikarrass} + {Kukl} + {The Sugarcubes} + {Bjork Gudmundsdottir}

While Iceland has traditionally been more readily identifiable for its volatile volcanos, glaciers and er… outrageous beer prices than its music, the emergence of the country’s first bona fide pop star put the northern nation firmly on the global map. A child star, BJORK may have been familiar to Icelandic fans since the late 70s yet it took a further decade before she graduated to cult international acclaim with The SUGARCUBES. The collective’s freewheeling avant-pop briefly charmed the European indie scene (and spun off a few minor hits, among them the inimitable `Birthday’) before its diminutive, hyperkinetic star unleashed her “Debut” album in ’93. Fast forward two decades and BJORK is more than just a star – she’s an institution!
Born Bjork Gudmundsdottir, 21st November 1965, Reykjavik, Iceland, she grew up in a creative communal family; he mother an activist, her father a union leader. Something of a child prodigy, the strikingly unique BJORK enjoyed her first taste of the music business at the age of 11, when she impressed her teachers with her rendition of Tina Charles’ global smash, `I Love To Love’; her music instructor duly convinced Iceland’s only radio station (RUV) to play her version. Impressed as much by her charm as her unique vocal talents, and convinced by her songwriting stepdad Saevar Arnasson, Falkinn Records took her under their wing, releasing her eponymous LP, BJORK {*4}, around Xmas 1977. Basically clocking up a half-hour, combining songs and sessions from many of her nation’s top musicians, her own instrumental flute composition (`Johannes Kjarval’), and a selection of covers from STEVIE WONDER (`Your Kiss Is Sweet’: “Bukolla”), The BEATLES (`The Fool On The Hill’: Alfur Ut Ur Hol”), EDGAR WINTER (`Alta Mira’) and MELANIE (`Christopher Robin’: “Baenin”), the record’s best forgotten by all parties concerned.
Turning down offers to come up with a follow-up, royalties were spent on a piano, which helped develop her songwriting ambitions. The young Miss Gudmundsdottir was inspired by punk records she’d heard over the airwaves (The SLITS, SIOUXSIE, X-RAY SPEX, et al) and, as a result, she formed her first outfit, Spit & Snot; her almost immediate turn to jazz-fusion for her next project, Exodus, kept her busy until she graduated from music school at 15.
Fronting Jam-80, and, in turn, TAPPI TIKARRASS (Icelandic for “Cork The Bitch’s Arse”), Bjork, bassist Jakob Smari Magnusson, guitarist Eyjolfur Johannsson and drummer Gudmundur Por Gunnarsson, delivered a 12” EP, `Bitid Fast I Vitid’, a cocktail of funky punk and jazzy disco. Throwing in tapings of original vocalist, Eythor Arnalds (to that of Bjork), and fresh drummer Oddur F. Sigurbjarnason, the short-lived combo delivered their only full-set, the posthumous MIRANDA (1983) {*4}. Co-produced by Tony Cook, the record is decidedly on the side of muted-disco or melodious meanderings, and while one could vouch for `Krid’ and `Tjet’, the other 11 tracks are weak. Two unconnected tracks, `Dukkulisur’ and `Hrollur’, featured in Bjork’s first piece of celluloid action, Rokk I Reykjavik, a TV documentary about the upsurge of Icelandic acts. It was backed by errant KILLING JOKE theorists, Jaz Coleman and Youth, who had both fled to the frozen north in fear of a supposed impending apocalypse.
As Tappi surely dissolved in August ‘83, Bjork teamed up as part of Gramm Records’ Asmundur Jonsson’s KUKL [“Sorcery”] enterprise, an Icelandic indie supergroup of sorts showcasing Einar Orn Benediktsson, Sigtryggur “Siggi” Baldursson, Gudlaugur Kristinn “Gud.Krist” Ottarsson, Birgir Morgensen and Einar Melax (who’d superseded Bragadottir on the `Songull’ single); this KILLING JOKE-meets-Banshees lot found their way across into Britain’s alt-rock fraternity (via the CRASS label) on two albums, the mini-set THE EYE (1984) {*7} and HOLIDAYS IN EUROPE (1986) {*5}. Sprawling and spiralling into the depths of industrial noise-core, and highlighting the squeals of youthful pixie, Bjork (and drones of Einar Orn), one can’t vouch for anything outstanding from both records, though collectively, and now historically, the dirges seem to gel in a curiously atonal and avant-garde manner.
During this mid-80s period, BJORK would also take part in Rokha Rokha Drum (as a drummer! and voice). This ensemble included lead vocalist Johnny Triumph (b. Sjon), who was soon to collaborate with Bjork’s most famous and productive outfit, The SUGARCUBES. Hooking up with guitarist Thor Eldon Jonsson (her then hubby and father of her son, Sindri), bassist Bragi Olafsson, plus former KUKL alumni, vocalist/trumpeter Einar Orn, drummer Siggi and second guitarist Fridrik Erlingsson, Bjork and her nu-crew formed as Sykurmolarnir (aka SUGARCUBES) in August ’86. A few records under this Icelandic moniker (including a movie score collaboration with composer, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, for homeland feature Skytturmar), filtered through from the Smekkleysa imprint, until Derek Birkett (once of FLUX OF PINK INDIANS) found them a place London-based label, One Little Indian.
From the very first lines of the sublime, `Birthday’ single, the group had the critics and Radio One DJ, John Peel, salivating with every twist and turn. Like pop music from another planet, the song’s reverberating bass-line, celestial brass and ethereal production conspired to make this the aural equivalent of a particularly sensual massage. The track also introduced BJORK’s inimitable larynx, a perversely melodic combination of wide-eyed child and Icelandic banshee. A further two slices of avant-garde strangeness, `Coldsweat’ and `Deus’ followed the record into the UK charts, before their debut Birkett/Ray Shulman (GENTLE GIANT)-produced album, LIFE’S TOO GOOD {*9}, crashed into the Top 20 in spring ’88; Elektra Records signed them in the meantime. An intoxicating blend of jazzy instrumentation, indie styling and wilful weirdness (other examples: `Motorcrash’, `Delicious Demon’ and Mama’), the record’s success allowed the sextet to set up their own multi-media enterprise, Bad Taste Ltd, back in Iceland. By the time `Birthday’ was making its re-mix appearance in the hit parade, keyboardist Margret “Magga” Ornolfsdottir, took over from Fridrik.
If one wanted media-spinning inner-feuding and eventual hyperbole, then one could look no further than Thor, who’d just divorced Bjork, then married Margret “Magga” Ornolfsdottir – the Cubes’ new keyboard player. Furthermore, Siggi and Bragi were former brothers-in-law who were married to twin sisters; in 1989, the latter divorced his wife and, having married Einar Orn, settled in Denmark – this was thought to be the first openly gay marriage in rock/pop history, until one found out that it was all an elaborate hoax. What weren’t so much of a hoax were The SUGARCUBES’ covers of The CARPENTERS’ `Top Of The World’ and from 1990’s “Rubaiyat” compilation: SAILCAT’s `Motorcycle Mama’.
Though a follow-up, HERE TODAY, TOMORROW NEXT WEEK! (1989) {*6} again made the UK Top 20, the critical reception was poor; particular vitriol reserved for Einar Orn’s jarring vocal exhortations. Inspired by Mr. Toad, a character from children’s classic, The Wind In The Willows, both chosen singles `Regina’ and `Planet’ failed to register in the charts. At times a tad trippy and whimsical, the ill-advised steel-drum beat of opener `Tidal Wave’ was probably the warning listeners should’ve heeded. Still, tracks such as `Water’ and `Hot Meat’ had their appeal and it was a lesson learned.
After starring as Margit in an Icelandic Brothers Grimm Fairytales feature film update, The Juniper Tree (1990) – Bryndis Petra Bragadottir played her elder sister – Bjork continued to work on various outsider jazz-styled projects, while keeping her name in the music press via collaborative work with 808 STATE on their “Ex:El” album. Showing that her elasticated larynx wasn’t exclusive to the world of pop and punk, BJORK GUDMUNDSDOTTIR (& trio Gudmundar Ingolfssonar) delivered a lounge-jazz set, GLING-GLO (1990) {*6}.
Then, in late ‘91, The SUGARCUBES bounced back with the celebratory avant-funk of `Hit’; the band putting in an unforgettable performance on Channel 4’s “The Word”. The accompanying album, STICK AROUND FOR JOY (1992) {*7} saw the group back in critical favour, a brassy potpourri of spiked melody and faultless instrumental dexterity. Paul Fox was the man chosen to come up with the necessary oomph and sparkle to get the group rolling again, and in some regards, tracks such as the arty `Happy Nurse’, `I’m Hungry’, `Vitamin’ and the funky `Chihuahua’, managed it in part.
To consolidate the new dance-floor-friendly direction, a set of remixes, IT’S-IT {*5}, was released in late ‘92, coinciding with the voluntary demise of The SUGARCUBES. It had been a short and strange trip, but not as strange as BJORK’s forthcoming rise to international pop superstardom. While she undoubtedly had a distinctive, beguiling charm, few would’ve predicted the massive critical and commercial achievements of her solo debut, entitled, er… DEBUT (1993) {*9}.
Co-authored in part with ex-SOUL II SOUL/MASSIVE ATTACK guru, Nellee Hooper and featuring such underrated talents as Talvin Singh and Jhelisa Anderson, proceedings were dominated by pulsing, house-orientated material, although there was a fair smattering of off-the-wall BJORK oddities. A UK Top 3 success and a Mercury Prize nominee, the album and its attendant singles: `Human Behaviour’, the swooning `Venus As A Boy’, `Big Time Sensuality’ and `Violently Happy’, turned BJORK into a household name, re-mixers clamouring to get to grips with her work. Lauded by the indie and dance press alike, the album’s kudos was further boosted by the success of the un-associated `Play Dead’ single, an exclusive movie theme collaboration with nu-soundtrack man, David Arnold, recorded for Brit crime drama, Young Americans; this orchestral manoeuvre expanded upon the electronic experimentation of her “debut”.
A true celebrity hobnob, BJORK duly co-wrote the title track to MADONNA’s “Bedtime Stories” set, while 1995’s follow-up album, POST {*8}, saw her working with everyone from TRICKY and SKUNK ANANSIE to the Brodsky Quartet and deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie. The latter two featured on the experimental/schizophrenic (delete according to taste) Top 5 hit, `It’s Oh So Quiet’, an, ahem… “adaptation” of Betty Hutton’s 1940s Big Band number which saw BJORK veer wildly from hushed reverence to shouting down the rafters. The song was characteristic of the album’s more fragmented nature (from the pulse-driven `Army Of Me’, `Possibly Maybe’ and `I Miss You’ to the lushness of techno-tearjerker `Hyper-Ballad’), a challenging listen but proof positive that the elfin firebrand wasn’t content to rest on her laurels.
The following year saw BJORK take up residence in the tabloids rather than the charts. What with her highly publicised short ’n’ sharp relationship with drum ’n’ bass man GOLDIE, and her unfortunate fracas with a reporter at Bangkok airport (February 19), it was hard to keep her out of the column inches. And make matters even worse, that September, an obsessed fan from Florida blew his brains out after sending her a letter bomb. Luckily neighbours contacted police after smelling his decomposed body and the device was averted; unsurprisingly, it caused her much distress. Unrelated, and as a possible diversion to all the tragic events surrounding her, remix set TELEGRAM (1996) {*7} was a radical attempt at luring in dance-orientated fans.
The stresses and strains of stardom formed the lyrical backbone of her acclaimed Top 5 set, HOMOGENIC (1997) {*8}, a return to more electronic waters that was nevertheless more downbeat than dance-floor. A large contributor to “Post”, HOWIE B was again in co-production, as other BJORK collaborators, Mark Bell (of LFO) and Mark “Spike” Stent, weaved their magic on percolating tracks `Joga’, `Bachelorette’, `Hunter’ and `Alarm Call’.
Save for a cameo in Robert Altman’s 1994 movie, Pret-a-Porter, and a non-album hit, `All Is Full Of Love’, BJORK’s next film project was the feted Dancer In The Dark; controversial Danish director Lars Von Trier’s Palme d’Or-winning musical. As the star of the movie (alongside Catherine Deneuve) and the composer of its reliably experimental routines, the soundtrack was released as SELMASONGS (2000) {*7}. The Icelandic songstress bagged a plethora of nominations and awards, including a Best Song Oscar nomination (for the THOM YORKE duet, `I’ve Seen It All’) and a European Film Academy award for Best European Actress. With help from conductor/arranger Vincent Mendoza, she composed the musical fantasies of her doomed character, Selma. Deliciously different from her studio albums, the soundtrack presented a forum for the singer’s more esoteric ideas, poignantly capturing the light, shade and emotional extremes of Selma’s tragic life. BJORK’s technicolour vision so-to-speak, comes into full effect on track five, `In The Musicals’ (with a mind-blowing chorus of “You will always be there to ca-a-a-tch me”), a record that displayed her full emotional “voca-a-a-a-argh-l” range. The serious side of the film is intensified on `107 Steps’; BJORK counting each one as she walks… – spoiler alert! Closing track, `New World’, was another to get one reaching for the handkerchiefs (especially if one’s seen the movie), reprised from the opening orchestral score and theatrically performed with heart and soul by BJORK.
In contrast, the celestial calm of her next album, VESPERTINE (2001) {*8}, was located squarely inside the meditative confines of the author’s immediate environment. A reclusive rhapsody to private contentment, the record’s spectral choir, angelic harp and head-nodding beats (courtesy of MATMOS) weaved a suitably spiritual spell to accommodate BJORK’s uncharacteristically restrained and subdued vocals. Listen for instance to its heart-rending and sensuous hit singles, `Hidden Place’ and `Pagan Poetry’, to find out exactly how much this little lady had progressed. While the record sounded at times like the cousin of RADIOHEAD’s “Kid A” (noodling examples `Cocoon’ and `It’s Not Up To You’), BJORK’s whispering breaths distinguishes her from any other brooding breed of alt-rockers.
A multi-cultural cast of collaborators were rounded up for her next pet project, MEDULLA (2004) {*7}, her most challenging piece since “Selma”. Such distinctive characters as ROBERT WYATT, Tanya Tagaq Gillis, Mike Patton (ex-FAITH NO MORE), Rahzel and the aforementioned LFO electroid boffin, Mark Bell, helped shape the kind of stark, ethnically-inclined canvas normally the preserve of specialist media rather than the Top 10. One of the most accessible highlights from an album constructed almost wholly from diverse human voices was `Oceania’, written specifically for the opening ceremony at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Sonic and soaring to unfettered heights of delicate passion, BJORK pushes out all the stops for the likes of relatively minor hits, `Triumph Of A Heart’ and `Who Is It’.
Keeping on with her world-music trip, BJORK returned to the even more free-form sphere of avant-garde cinema and soundtracks, via her collaboration with art-house filmmaking beau, Matthew Barney. Like MADONNA’s keep-it-in-the-family venture, Swept Away, DRAWING RESTRAINT 9 (2005) {*7}, was a maritime meditation; unlike Madge’s movie, it featured whaling culture, Japanese myth and symbolism. To describe the album as minimalist would be short-sighted, as at times there was a lot going on – all of the weird variety one might add. From organic opener, `Gratitude’ (featuring lo-fi Bonnie Prince Billy, himself, WILL OLDHAM, and a children’s choir!), it was clear the record was on a trip of its own, and most of it without the vox of BJORK. One finally hears her on `Bath’, a whispering, multi-layered lullaby for the institutionalized – the lady can’t get much “higher” than this. The album plays with every emotion under the sun, all highs and lows to combat the film’s stark connections between life, death, sacrifice and transformation. For the mind-blowing `Storm’ (easily the best thing on the set), BJORK proffers her vocal chords as a “vessel”, and at long last finally contributes something of worth. The near 10-minute, `Holographic Entrypoint’, was, in contrast, theatrical, using traditional Noh singers, basic lo-fi rpm (rattles per minute, rather than revs) and wood-block percussionists.
Without name collaborators who knows what planet BJORK might’ve landed on in terms of musical accomplishment; 2007’s VOLTA {*7} was no exception, tenders coming in the shape of TIMBALAND (who’d recently worked with CHRIS CORNELL) and Konono No.1. While Antony Hegarty (of ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS) is on hand to catapult the emotionally uplifting `The Dull Flame Of Desire’, it’s the tribal rhythm of `Earth Intruders’ that separates her moods from the oblique into an imaginary galactic dance-floor. Melody is sparse but beats are plenty; `Innocence’ and `Wanderlust’ ones to rise above the parapet.
Waiting a couple of years to release its remix accompaniment, VOLTAIC (2009) {*6}, was probably ill-advised, although the long wait for new material was over by way of the innovative BIOPHILIA (2011) {*7}. Designed to counteract the growing trend of interactive apps, the package/concept comes across as a sort of soundtrack. Garnering science, knowledge and spirituality in equal measure, BJORK’s ambitions are realised through tracks like `Moon’, `Crystalline’, `Cosmogony’, et al – although not everyone’ll get the message. Here, laptop-rock wins over lap-dance pop.
Scheduled for a March 2015 release date, BJORK’s record company had to bring forward a digital release in January for VULNICURA {*8} to compensate its leak to the internet. Despite this set-back, the album still managed to crack the UK and US Top 20 on these sales, while a resurgence on its proper premier led to further marketing boosts. Despair through break-up (she split with Matthew Barney) was always going to be a high-wire walk along a musical tight-rope, but the emotional BJORK was part-and-parcel to the concept of heartache. A soundscape of staccato beats and warped synth-symphony, the claustrophobic and lengthy `Black Lake’ relayed her anguish in one fell swoop. Wrenchingly dark and deep from her wounded heart and soul, one imagines it might be a long recovery, although in grim times she excels; check out also `Stonemilker’, `Lionsong’ and `Family’. The relatively unnecessary companion pieces, released later in the year: VULNICURA STRINGS {*6} and VULNICURA LIVE {*6} were optional addition to her bulging catalogue.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-GRD/LCS // rev-up MCS Feb2013-Nov2015

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