If ever an artist was destined for the Manchester International Festival it is Björk. Edgy, respected, continually pushing back the barriers of her music over a long career – she brings together a formidable audience of men, women, gay, straight, pop fans and lovers of serious music.
And here in the city where she forged her post-Sugarcubes career with the assistance of 808 State's Graham Massey, it seems fitting she should be providing the opening night of the three-week extravaganza of delights. Many of the city's great and good who turned out in force at the old Campfield Victorian market hall will have spent a good number of blissed-out dawns unwinding to the Icelandic singer's first solo albums in the early 1990s. Some will have followed her all the way since – Inuit throat singers, swan dress and battered photographers included. Biophilia, her seventh studio album, is, we are told by the disembodied narrator that presages her pixie-voiced arrival on stage, a link between nature, music and technology – a "celebration of natural phenomena from the atomic to the cosmic."
The project combines two versions of the same album, some specially commissioned smartphone apps (first single "Crystalline" has already been released in this format) and some freaky invented instruments, namely custom-built, digitally controlled pipe organs, a gamelan-celeste hybrid and a 30-foot, gravity-powered pendulum. There is an internet presence, documentary, educational workshops and, of course, the live show.
What we get on the night is Björk sporting an outlandish ginger wig, clad in floaty blue wrap and clingy emerald dress. She is supported by a 24-strong choir of Icelandic singers – part coven, part flock of nymphs. There are plenty of twinkly bells, the occasional knee-buckling bass and some high-definition animations to accompany Björk's hypnotic muse. We have starfish consuming what looks like a dead rabbit in "Hidden Place"; sprouting fungi in "Isobel"; and a tectonic lesson in seismology in "Where Is the Line?" But the standout performance harks back to an earlier, more accessible time. On "All Is Full of Love", Björk treats us to a soaring anthem, her extraordinary twisted Icelandic syntax in full force. She circles the stage sternly, stroking her belly while the choir keens. Hands that had tentatively been raised skywards are now properly hoisted.
Manchester International Festival: to 16 July (0161 238 7300)