‘ABBA Voyage’ brings new life to pop music in the digital age

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“ABBA Voyage”, the Swedish superstar band’s “live comeback” concert via state-of-the-art digital technology, is the kind of show so new that we don’t yet have the vocabulary to describe it.

For now, “incredible” will have to do.

Holograms have gained a reputation for creepiness and tackiness, thanks to the shows of the dead by singers Whitney Houston and Roy Orbison. But judging by “ABBA Voyage,“Digital technology has triumphantly caught up with suction.

This production, which landed in a purpose-built structure, dubbed ABBA Arena, in East London in May 2022, has to be seen to be believed. Body doubles, one hundred and sixty high-tech cameras, a thousand animators and terabytes of computing power (courtesy of George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic) captured the movements and expressions of the four individual members of the band ABBA, now all in their seventies, creating completely realistic avatars for this incredible recreation of the band in concert at their peak, circa 1979.

The arena, which comfortably seats 3,000, resembles a chunky hexagonal spaceship, conveniently parked opposite a Docklands Light Rail stop. The press calls it a “digital concert residence”, a phrase which, when searched online, has so far exclusively returned references to “ABBA Voyage”. It’s reminiscent of how early talkies were referred to in the New York Times as “audible pictorial transcriptions.”

Indeed, it looks like something new.

Directed by Baillie Walsh, “ABBA Voyage” is a platonic ideal of a concert recalled in joyful memory, the same sequence of 20 classic songs (19 and an “encore”) accompanied by a group of 10 musicians, five days a week , presumably to give the pixels a rest.

This unlikely 2022 ABBA odyssey comes four decades after the group unofficially disbanded in 1982, following a decade of international success. The comeback accompanies a surprise new album of the same name, released last year. Two of these new songs are included in Travelreinforcing the feeling that this isn’t just a trip down memory lane – although it did dive into the banks of nostalgia as they commemorate the group that won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 for their country of origin, Sweden, with “Waterloo”.

The band’s name is an acronym of the first names of the members: singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and musicians-songwriters Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. With two inter-band marriages and divorces, the band suffered as much heartbreak and internal romantic drama as Fleetwood Mac.

ABBA bowed out with the well-received 1981 release “The Visitors,” then was relatively forgotten for the rest of the decade. Male musicians Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson covered “Chess”, and singers Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida) have pursued careers as solo singers.

But two things happened in 1992 that resurrected their popularity and won the previously elusive critically acclaimed band: The greatest hits package “Abba Gold” was released, as was the four-song cover album ” Abba-esque”, from the British synth. – pop duo Erasure.

As if to introduce the audience to the perhaps disorienting newness of the situation, “Voyage” opened with “The Visitors,” the chilling title track from their latest album (now the penultimate album).

Avatars move realistically on stage, costumes shimmer and shapes cast realistic shadows, with images from the stage projected onto large vertical screens. These aren’t glittery 3D holograms, but true-to-life infographics, with lighting and perspective tricks entirely selling the fantasy that you’re watching ABBA on stage, though the faces on the big screens sometimes betray blank stares. .

Behind-the-scenes photos show the group having nothing to do with what Dr. Evil might call their “near-futuristic” gear – the form-fitting motion-capture suits that Anna-Frid calls “transmitter doodads.”

The show was aired with natural breaks for “costume changes” and a confusing video interlude, each nonetheless giving the proceedings a “real” feel, with the band live.

I’ll keep the fixed concert list a happy secret, although it’s easily found online. But it’s surely no secret that ABBA’s biggest hit, “Dancing Queen,” had mature audiences on their toes. A feeling of near-ecstasy reigned as the classics played out for 96 minutes. And just to remind us that they’re lethal, ABBA is releasing a relatively mundane anime to accompany two classic songs.

But the whole show would just be a smart nostalgia trip without the timeless substance and emotional weight of the songs themselves. If music producer Phil Spector wrote little symphonies for children, then ABBA built sometimes silly, sometimes poignant pop for adults. As I was leaving, I heard a man confess that he was moved to tears. While linking the band’s mature sound to “Swedish melancholy,” as some critics do, that might go a bit far for the creators of “Dum-Dum-Diddle.”

So what is ABBA’s secret sauce? Musicologists argue that there aren’t many good ABBA covers (although many attribute the band’s second act to the release of Erasure) and that the songs don’t really work as elevator music. , suggesting that it’s the production choices that elevate the sometimes mundane material into magic. . The genius is in the craft.

“Voyage” is set to run through May 2023, a time that will surely not satisfy the appetites of the band’s legions of fans. Significantly, the arena was built for transportation, so it could theoretically jump from continent to continent where ABBA is loved, meaning everywhere.

Perhaps when space travel takes its own leap forward, the ABBA spaceship will soar to conquer other worlds. Or it could stay here on earth as a time capsule representing a pinnacle of 20emusical achievement of the last century, although the wooden interiors of the arena may need to be replaced with something more durable.

If the description “digital concert residence” does not stick, there are other words that apply to the show: poignant, stunning, transcendent. Whatever the name of these gigs, they can be seen rewarding popular bands, those willing to invest time and energy, with a long tail of rapturous attention from fans and a stream of income even after the end of their tours. One day, even mortality won’t be able to stop the music.

This can open another dimension of disconcerting stakes: Are we going to become a world of nostalgic addicts, observing ghosts in a machine? “ABBA Travel” is a magical novelty, but if such technologically refined marvels become commonplace (so-called “deepfakes”, which digitally replace the likeness of one person with another, are already incredibly true to life), will we tolerate again the mere flesh-and-blood human presentations, with all their missteps, delays and imperfections? Immerse yourself in the wondrous “ABBA Voyage”, but beware of a future where digital equivalents exceed reality.

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